El Shaddai and the Gender of God (Revised)

El Shaddai and the Gender of God (Revised)

2014 05 23 14 39 54

In the last few weeks, a debate has been raging on the Internet, and particularly on Twitter, about the gender of God. It started when Owen Strachan called out Rachel Held Evans for using a feminine reference to God and called her a heretic (see also this). And thus began a twitterfeud.

Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, wrote a post called “Is God Male?” that goes over some of the feminine biblical imagery for God and summarizes reasons why using both feminine, masculine, and non-gendered images for God is a good thing. As has been stated over and over again: all language describing God is metaphorical and limited by our human understanding. That is why we cannot conclude from masculine pronouns or feminine images that God is either male or female. God is neither and both and beyond either.

But I wanted to add another element to the debate because, as far as I know, no one has considered it recently: the possibility of a feminine name for God in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh, God’s favored name, is non-gendered. Properly translated, it means “the One who is” or “I am.” It most certainly does not mean LORD, even though almost all modern English translations render it thus. This is a continuation of a long tradition started by the Jews in which the word “Lord” (Adonai) is substituted for the sacred name YHWH. Jews considered the name YHWH too sacred to be uttered, and so the less sacred name Adonai was used to replace it in all spoken readings of the text. English translations render YHWH as LORD (all caps) not as a translation, but in deference to this long-standing tradition of substitution.

Numerous names for God can be found in the Bible: El Roi, El Elyon, Elohim, El Olam, etc. But one of these names, El Shaddai, is especially intriguing in the context of feminine language for God. Why? Because it could be a feminine name for God.

El Shaddai is invariably translated in our English Bibles as “God Almighty.” This rendering is apparently based on the Greek Old Testament’s translation of the name as pantokrator, which means “all powerful.” Although the Greek OT (LXX) translated the name this way, the etymology of a Hebrew word does not derive from Greek. The Greek translators interpreted the Hebrew to mean pantokrator, but the etymology of the word doesn’t support that translation.

The main Hebrew lexicons, Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) and The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT, also known as K-B for its editors, Kohler and Baumgartner), both offer various possibilities for the etymology of the word shaddai. One possibility is that it derives from the verb שדד shadad. שדד shadad means “to deal violently with,” but none of the lexicons or theological word books suggest that shaddai means “God of violence.” Another possibility, found only in BDB, is that the name comes from שדה shadah , which means “to pour out,” and refers to God as “rain giver.” The Kohler-Baumgartner lexicon (HALOT) suggests that the word could be based on the Akkadian shadu which means “mountain.” Thus, El Shaddai means “The God of the mountain(s).” This seems to be the current favorite among scholars. HALOT also suggests another possibility, such as the idea that El Shaddai refers to one of the ancestral gods, but the meaning of the name is uncertain.

One possibility that is not mentioned in either BDB or HALOT is found in both the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and also in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE). And that is that the name Shaddai comes from the word  thdw/y which means “breast” (or “mountain.”) (See TDOT, I:257; NIDOTTE, I:401). Although TDOT concludes that “God of the mountain” is the best translation, the fact that it recognizes “The God of Breasts” as a possibility is significant.

In Hebrew the word שד shad means “breast.” The noun itself is masculine in form even though it refers only to female breasts. TDOT notes that shaddai follows a common pattern for divine name formation using a “natural element plus an adjectival suffix. One thinks of  ‘Artsay, Tallay, and Pidray, wives of Ba`al whose names mean “One of the Earth,” “The Dewy One,” and “the Misty One” (TDOT, I:256). Thus Shaddai would mean “The Breasted One.” [1]

The etymology of El Shaddai remains uncertain and contested. As HALOT concludes, “Despite several attempted and suggested explanations the etymology of שדי has still not been completely clarified” (II:1421). For this reason, we should not dismiss possibilities like “The God of Breasts” simply because some scholars have come to an admittedly uncertain consensus on “God of the Mountain(s).”

Although etymology is certainly important in determining the meaning of a word, how the word is used in context ultimately determines what it means. For example, the word הלך halak usually means “go” or “walk.” But in some contexts it can mean “to do something continually” (2 Sam. 13:19) or even “to have sexual intercourse” (Amos 2:7)! An example of this same sort of thing can be found in English.  “To nail” typically means to use a hammer to insert a nail. But a crude usage also exists: “he nailed her.” The word ברך barak which usually means “to bless” can also mean “to curse” in certain contexts (see 1 Kings 21:10; Ps. 10:3).  We have similar examples in English, for example the word “bad” being used to mean “radically cool.”

Context determines meaning. If we look at El Shaddai in its various contexts, it has a semantic range of meaning. In other words, it can mean different things in different contexts, anywhere from “The God of Breasts” to “The God of the Mountain(s)” to a derived meaning “Powerful God.” I will limit my discussion to the contexts that seem most likely for the translation of “The God of Breasts.”

Virtually every use of El Shaddai occurs in a fertility context (exceptions are Exod. 6:3 and Ezek. 10:5). A few uses of Shaddai (without El) also occur in fertility contexts. What this means is that when the biblical writers wanted to emphasize that God is a God of fertility (and how better to envision such a God than as a God with breasts?) they used the name El Shaddai (or, in a few cases, Shaddai).

Gen. 17:1 (cf. vv. 1-6 for fertility context): God tells Abram, “I am El Shaddai” and subsequently reiterates the covenant between God and Abram, focusing in vv. 4-6 on Abram’s fertility.

Gen. 28:3 (cf. v. 4 in addition for fertility context): Isaac blesses Jacob in the name of El Shaddai and emphasizes that this God will make Jacob fruitful and numerous with multiple offspring.

Gen. 35:11: God appears to Jacob as El Shaddai and commands him to be fruitful and multiply.

Gen. 43:14: Jacob sends his sons back to Egypt with Benjamin and asks that El Shaddai return Joseph and Benjamin to him. While not overtly about fertility, Jacob views Joseph and Benjamin as his true progeny and fears losing them.

Gen. 48:3 (cf. v. 4 for fertility context): Jacob relates what happened to him at Luz when El Shaddai appeared to him (cf. 35:11).

Gen. 49:25 (this verse uses only Shaddai): “by the God of your father, who will help you, by Shaddai who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts (שדים shadayim) and of the womb.” (Thanks to Yossie Bloch for pointing this verse out to me. I accidentally omitted it).

Ruth 1:20, 21: Naomi bitterly speaks of how Shaddai has dealt bitterly with her, depriving her of progeny (fertility).

Learning that El Shaddai might mean “The God of Breasts” usually freaks people out. It ruins the Amy Grant/Michael Card song. It makes them uncomfortable. But if indeed El Shaddai can mean “The God of Breasts” isn’t that an amazing concept coming from a patriarchal culture? El Shaddai then refers to a God who nurtures sexuality and bestows fertility (or takes it away). The God of Breasts gives us insight into a deity who encapsulates (and goes beyond) both masculine and feminine characteristics. This name combatted the ancient notion that a god must have a consort, like Baal had Asherah. The God of Breasts is the God of fertility. There is no other. [2]

The God of Breasts is but one possible name for God. But it is an important one to remember when we hear people arguing that God is literally a male. If a patriarchal society employed both masculine and feminine metaphors for God and even used the possibly feminine name El Shaddai, why are we so uncomfortable with non-masculine images for God? If we claim to be biblical, but use only masculine images for God, then we aren’t really being biblical, are we? The Bible, the early church fathers, the mystics, and the so-called “heretics” of today are calling us to expand our language for God. If we limit ourselves to gendered language, we have created a graven image of God.

El Shaddai, El Shaddai,

El Elyon, Adonai

Age to age You’re still the same

By the power of your name.

May we let the power of God’s many names and the multiple metaphors for God expand our understanding of God beyond our comfort. Let us challenge ourselves to speak of God in new ways, in non-limiting ways, in ways that include rather than exclude.

May the God of Breasts make fertile your imagination, nurture your understanding, and multiply your metaphors. Amen.



[1] The form of the word Shaddai with its doubled dalet and -ay ending puzzles scholars. HALOT concludes that “the (doubling of the) d in שדי is secondary, and the ending -ay is the normal North-West Semitic gentilic termination . . . .” Thus, arguments that say  שדי cannot be related to the word שד (breast) because of the doubled dalet are less compelling.

[2] All the lexicons and theological wordbooks agree that the El names derive from Canaanite religion (see especially TDOT, I: 256). Since the Canaanite religion was polytheistic and included female deities, it would make sense that the Israelites might incorporate goddess qualities into their God while still maintaining monotheistic views. They certainly incorporated other ideas from Canaanite culture, including temple design, emphasizing Yahweh as a God of fertility over against Baal (see Hos. 2:14-23), and adopting the El shrines as their own.




41 thoughts on “El Shaddai and the Gender of God (Revised)”

  1. Of course, there’s a good reason to translate YHWH as LORD: it makes translating Kyrios in the NT easier. The only English translation to have jumped consistently the other way (although it’s obviously an issue in NT translation into Hebrew) and gone for alternative renderings of Kyrios as the translators saw best is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation; and that is something for which they have been criticized.

  2. I dunno. As a breastfeeding mother, I would argue that saying the context is solely fertility is both shallow and limiting. The relationship between the breastfeeding child and mother is both profound and complex. the infant relies on the breast, needs it, seeks it, desires it. The breast provides both sustenance physically and emotionally, providing comfort, security, nurturance, relationship and development. AS the child grows older, the relationship changes, but the breast remains a safe place to return to. (talking extended weaning here). I doubt a primitive culture would NOT be aware of the complexity and power of the BFing relationship. You dont need to extend it into fertility. I think this interpretation is way, way oversimplified and thus loses its potential and power in our culture. Very, very few people in our culture have seen or participated in an extended weaning BF relationship and for that reason it is oversimplified and misunderstood. most people are so far removed from it that all they can think about it is “ick”. But I argue that in order to fully understand this name, you must dig into that relationship and understand it.

    1. I discuss the nurturing element briefly at the end of the post. And I don’t think saying that the textual context is fertility is in any way shallow or limiting. It’s the literary context. The idea of the God of Breasts includes the concept of fertility and is found in fertility passages. But it is not a name limited to “just fertility” though in a patriarchal society, in particular in Genesis, fertility and progeny is of utmost importance. The idea of God as nurturer and life giver is inherent in the concept of the God of Breasts and in any of the metaphors where God is described as nursing mother, birthing mother, or midwife.

      1. I think the point made is that the relationship between the people who call God by this name and God, is one not simply of fertility, but of incredible dependence on God. In that context, it makes more sense to say this is a name that is more linked to breast milk, than breasts.

    2. I guess that I don’t think of fertillity as simply reproductive. I have participated in extended breastfeeding, and I do understand what you mean about that relationship, but when I think of fertillity I think of spring. I think of things growing, things not just beginning to exist, but of them thriving, so to me fertillity isn’t something short lived, like becoming pregnant.

  3. My thought was to see what the ancient Jewish scribes thought about the term by seeing how they translated it into the Greek in the Septuagint. In all of the instances in the Septuagint, there is no term for almighty of power. For instance, Gen. 17:1 simply says God appears to Abram and says “I am your God.” In Ruth, the work Almighty appears in English renderings of the Greek, but the word rendered as “Almighty” is really more of the sense “The one who is able to do something about it” because Naomi is saying why her name should be changed to “Bitterness” because “The one who is able to do something about it has made her life extremely bitter.”

    Regarding the term “God of Breasts” — although, I personally have no problem with using feminine language as well as masculine language for God — it would be more of an idiom than a description. And as you rightly point out that it is found within the context of fertility, the idiom would be more of “God of Abundant Care.” Using this phrase to show femininity in God is, to me, like saying “The God who pulls our legs” (an idiom for fibbing) could be used to show that God may be a marathon runner — because he has legs. There are many explicit metaphors and similes that demonstrate feminine imagery for God. God is like a hen gathering her chicks. God is like a mother.

    Also, even in English, we have examples of non-idiomatic speech rendering words differently than what they should mean. The word “Terrific” should mean something that inspires Terror, but we use it as a positive as a synonym for “That’s Great!” and not as “That fills me with profound dread and fear” as the etymology of the word suggests.

    But overall, this is a very informative essay and we should all be forced from time to time to examine why we hold onto what we hold onto. If the ideas in this essay are offensive, it may be that the perceived offense is a challenge to the idol I have created in my mind about a masculine God.

    It is always fun to watch finite minds attempt to define and constrain an infinite being. For my mind, God can only be spoken of in metaphor and paradox. That metaphor and paradox may (and probably should) include the feminine as well as the masculine.

    But I have a long history of being wrong about stuff…

  4. Well, that was an interesting exercise. I just reviewed all 48 OT passages where El Shadday is used. While it seems to me that the idea of God as breast is not intended from these passages, there are some contexts that could be seen as supporting it. In the presence of this divine title, Abram is promised many descendents, and there are three “be fruitful and multiply” passages. Job also looks back to a happier time, when El Shadday and his children were yet with him.
    Apart from procreation, El Shadday is found in the context of blessing, such as when Jacob says El Shadday blesses you with blessings from above. Job 22:26 would be particularly interesting, if Shadday were found to mean the Divine Breast, with its “you will delight in God, and you’ll lift up your face to God.” When Job 32 and 33 credit wisdom and life coming from the breath of El Shadday, it echoes ideas of blessing, but it would certainly be mixing a metaphor to say blessings come from the breath of a breast.
    El Shadday also appears in the context of protection: Psalm 91:1 says, “He who dwells in the shadow of the Most High will abide in the shadow of El Shadday,” and that we’re safe under His wings.
    El Shadday is also found in the context of bereavement: Jacob thinks he may lose his kids when he sends them back to Egypt; When Naomi loses her family, she calls herself “Bitter”, saying El Shadday has dealt bitterly with her. Job 27:2 says that God has taken away his right and embittered his soul.
    Looking only at the above, the theory appears plausible that “Shadday” was related to “Shad,” which is Hebrew for breast. But let’s also look at another understanding of Shadday. It has been proposed that this derives from the Hebrew “shadad,” or, Destroyer.
    If we consider Shadday as meaning Destroyer, some of the contexts noted previously don’t work very well with this name for God. When talking about God providing fruitfulness and blessings, it would seem rather out of place to use “Destroyer” as His name. But there are other passages that would fit “Destroyer” rather well. For example, in Psalm 68:14, El Shadday scattered the kings, but the whole psalm is filled with “Let God arise, His enemies be scattered,” “The wicked perish before God,” “He leads out the prisoners into prosperity,” “The earth quaked,” and “The chariots of God are myriads.” Isaiah 13:16 and Joel 1:15 say the day of the Lord will be a cruel day of destruction with fury from El Shadday, and everyone will be terrified. Ezekiel 1:24 and 10:5 talk about the voice of El Shadday, which sounds like a tumult, or of an army camp, or abundant waters. In Job 6:4, Job groans that the arrows of El Shadday are within him, poisoning his spirit. In Job 6:14, we are urged not to forsake the fear of El Shadday. In Job 23:16, Job says El Shadday made his heart faint and dismayed him. Punishment from El Shadday is discussed in Job 15:25, 21:20, 24:1, 27:11, 27:13, and 31:2. Job’s cry, “Let El Shadday answer me” could well mean, “Let my destroyer answer me.” When God finally responds in Job 40:2, He asks, “Do you dare contend with Me, El Shadday?”
    In the context of these passages, “El Shadday” would not seem to be referring to a God of fertility or blessing, while the passages we looked at earlier would not seem to be discussing a God of retribution and judgment. So let’s consider another understanding. My NASB dictionary says Shadday comes from uncertain origin and translates it “Almighty.” That works well for all passages noted above, and for many contexts where neither fertility nor destruction seem to fit.
    For example, Job 5:17 says we’re not to despise His discipline, as El Shadday inflicts pain and gives relief, He wounds and heals. Job 22:23 calls us to receive instruction and to listen to His words, for if we return -to El Shadday, we will be restored. In a sense, El Shadday is both Blesser and Destroyer.
    Some passages carry the thought that El Shadday is impossibly remote: Job 35:13 says that He will not listen to the cry of prideful, evil men, and what could we possibly give Him by being righteous? Job 37:23 says that God is awesome in splendor, exalted in power, and we cannot find Him. Job 22:3 asks if our righteousness gives El Shadday any pleasure, implying the answer is no. In Job 11:7, we’re asked if it’s possible to discover the depths or limits of El Shadday, as they are as high as the heavens, and as deep as Sheol.
    What is the conclusion to be, then? Should we take context to mean something? It does seem that the contexts are rather consistent: blessing and loss, wounding and healing, Punisher and Restorer. He giveth and He taketh away. He is beyond our reach and not overly impressed by our own works. If these contexts teach us anything, it is not that He is solely a God of blessing or a God of destruction. It’s that He is both. In the contexts of His name “El Shadday,” it seems best to me to understand Him as All-Powerful, Almighty.

      1. With all due respect, what in the name of God are you all arguing about? the argument is in fact about the opinions of translators of the Old Testament, and not about God or the original test at all.

        In fact, there are four different forms of the word – one masculine, one feminine, one for belonging to a group/category and one plural – that are uniformly translated by “God” into English, without as much as making a note about the differences in the original. “Al” is indeed masculine, whereas “Ala” that is familiar to all, thanks to Islam, is just as definitely feminine. There is also “Alai” and “Alaim” – I apologize for the spelling, as I do not have Hebrew fonts on this computer.

        To those who want to say something about “El” or a “consonant script” in the case of Hebrew, please do not bother, as the niqqud were inserted by the Masoretes about 500 years AFTER Christ, and thus are a Masoretic interpretation itself, and most definitely not the original text, (why everyone still seems to translate that Masoretic interpretation, by the way, beats me), as Ludovicus Cappellus aka Louis Cappel or his disciple Francois Masclef would tell you – but then again you’d have to read Latin to know what exactly they had to say on the subject.

        In short, calm down and live in harmony – the essence of this world, according to God, is clearly mutual complementarity and cooperation on that basis, and not monkey fights!

        Cheers to everyone!

  5. 8724 שַׁדַּי (šǎd∙dǎy): n.pr. [oth n.masc.]; ≡ Str 7706; TWOT 2333—1. LN 12.1-12.42 (title) the Almighty, i.e., a title for the true God, often with a focus on the power to complete promises of blessing and prosperity (Ge 49:25; Nu 24:4, 16; Ru 1:20, 21; Job 5:17; 6:4, 14; 8:3, 5; 11:7; 13:3; 15:25; 21:15, 20; 22:3, 17, 23, 25, 26; 23:16; 24:1; 27:2, 10, 11, 13; 29:5; 31:2, 35; 32:8; 33:4; 34:10, 12; 35:13; 37:23; 40:2; Ps 68:15[EB 14]; 91:1; Isa 13:6; Eze 1:24; Joel 1:15+); 2. LN 12.1-12.42 unit: אֵל שַׁדַּי (ʾēl šǎd∙dǎy) God Almighty, i.e., a title for the one true God (Ge 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Ex 6:3; Eze 10:5+)

    Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLH 8724, #2). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

    Notice the word is masc. not fem.
    Also the translators of the Septuagint seemed to think Shaddai came from a root verb (shadad) that means “to overpower” or “to destroy.” God is so overpowering that He is considered “Almighty.” They were a lot closer to the culture of the Hebrews than we are.

    I really don’t think the Hebrews would have been ok with using a title for God that was connected to the female pagan goddesses.
    However you’re over all point is still valid. God should not be limited by human gender. I just wouldn’t make up new meanings for Hebrew words to support it.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. I’d like to try to respond as best I can here (though, admittedly, this is a complex issue).

      If you look at the footnote for Hebrew Geeks, I point out that the noun שד (breast) which is a feminine noun, is irregular in that when it is used in the plural, it takes masculine endings rather than feminine ones. This happens with several nouns in the Hebrew–masculine nouns take feminine endings in the plural and vice versa. For example, the noun for father אב, which is clearly masculine) in the plural is אבות which is a feminine plural form. Thus, it would make sense that the name, Shaddai, if indeed it is derived from שד (breast) would be in form masculine plural, just like the noun.

      The translators of the LXX don’t always render the Hebrew in a way faithful to the Hebrew. For example, in Isa. 7:14 where the Hebrew uses the word almah, which means “young woman” and is not the technical word for “virgin,” (which is betulah) the LXX translators chose the Greek technical word for virgin. So, relying on the LXX for the meaning of a Hebrew word may not be the most reliable method. The LXX, like all translations, is an interpretation. While the Greeks may have been closer to the Hebrew culture in time, they were influenced by their own cultural presuppositions.

      Last, I’m not as convinced that the Hebrews avoided “pagan” ideas. On the contrary, they readily adopted many of them. We see clearly that they adopted cherubim (from Mesopotamian/Egypt), temple structure (from Canaan), and numerous Canaanite names derived from El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon. In reality, we know that the Israelites were not truly monotheistic until the crisis of the Exile. The typical Israelite was probably very much polytheistic, incorporating multiple deities (including goddesses) into his/her lifestyle. Jeremiah describes this quite well in Jer. 7:18, though of course he is condemning these practices. Inscriptions from the seventh century say, “May you be blessed by YHWH and his Asherah,” indicating that the Hebrews synthesized YHWH and Baal quite readily. Even the name Elohim, which is clearly plural in form, may be an adoption of what was once polytheism into Hebrew monotheism (but that’s another complex argument that would take another post).

      Regardless, my post is meant to challenge the way lexicons have dealt with El Shaddai by completely disregarding the possibility of its derivation from “breast.” I could, of course, be wrong. But, then again, I might be right.

  6. By the same reasoning, we discover the surprising news that Richard Dawkins is not truly an atheist after all. He frequently ends meetings or TV shows by saying “Goodbye” which shows that he does believe in God, since that word actually is an abbreviation for “God be with you.” One of the earliest lesson an exegete learns is not to trust etymology where a word comes from does not yield reliable insights about what it means.

  7. Brilliant! But I would have cited Gen. 49:25 as well: “From the God of your father who will help you, and Shaddai who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts (shadayim) and of the womb.” So it’s just Shaddai in that verse, unless it’s meant to be taken with the El in the opening.

    1. Ooo! Thank you! I don’t know how I missed that one, but I’m going to add it to the post right now (citing you, of course). That’s probably the best verse of all! Thanks again.

  8. actually, that’s not entirely accurate.

    Shadayim means breasts. Not Shaddai. “IM” is plural of breast which is in its pure form (without singular/plural constructs) is “Sad.”

    Shaddai has a double meaning which is sustainer and destroyer. This is why the Hebrew people used it in their texts. Culturally, the believed that Elohim was the sustainer and the destroyer. God sustains those who follow God. God destroys those who fights against God.

    These two definitions were then condensed into “Almighty” because only someone who is mighty can sustain life and take away life with pure absolution.

    I hate to say this but “breasts” isn’t entirely accurate.

    With that said, I believe God has no gender but God does represent the perfect balance between what we would could label male and female.

    In all honesty, I believe God is more of a pureness of living energy…..think if Love was a Noun and not a verb. Love that is alive and sentient is God.

    1. Hmm. I’m not really following your argument or maybe you’re not following mine. I’m asserting that Shaddai is a derivative of the verb (Shadah) and the noun (Shad) rather than Shadad. If you look at the construct plural form of Shad you will see that it is spelled exactly like Shaddai except that it has a qames under the shin and the dalet isn’t doubled. But the vowel pointings were added 1000 years after the latest mss of the OT, so I’m not sure relying on the vowel pointing and dageshes is key to the etymology of the word Shaddai. My point is that it could originate from breast because there aren’t any compelling etymological arguments in the lexicons that explain why it could not. The only semi-compelling argument I’ve seen in the lexicons is the idea that Shaddai comes from the Akkadian shadu meaning mountain. But other than that, I see nothing that prevents associating Shaddai with the concept of breast. Plus, context determines meaning. Anyone who works with languages knows that a word can have a wide range of meanings and context ultimately determines how one understands a word. If El Shaddai/Shaddai appears in many contexts of fertility then the idea of the God of Breasts makes a lot of sense. I think that Isa. 49:25 is especially compelling since you find Shaddai and Shadayim in the same text.

      But we can certainly agree to disagree. I just don’t think anyone has given enough credence to the possibility of Shaddai deriving from Shad and Shadah.

  9. I preached for the first time ever on Mother’s Day. It was the fulfillment of years tearing down false gates and boundaries limiting my usefulness based on gender. In preparation for the sermon, I blogged about the feminine language used to describe God, and I mentioned in passing this meaning for El Shaddai. I am SO excited to see such a scholarly (and readable!) study of the name and its contexts — something I couldn’t find in time for my post or my sermon! But, I’ve shared it now at http://cheshainmotion.blogspot.com/2014/05/el-shaddai-gender.html . Grateful for this, and glad I found it on RHE’s Sunday Superlatives.

    1. Very cool! Glad it was of help to you. But be sure to read my many commenters who are questioning my view. It’s important to remember that, although I think I’m right, I could be wrong! Let the Shaddai wars begin!

  10. El Shaddai was a name already used in Ugarit. I doubt it was intended to be feminine as they had plenty of feminine gods but who knows what the origin was. Similarly we can’t really know what they were thinking when they called El, El Elyon or El Berit, though we know clearly what the meanings of those latter words are because they are used in other contexts.

  11. you wrote
    >> In Hebrew the word שד shad means “breast.”

    Just one other question (sorry for my ignorance in Hebrew anatomical terms):
    is it a generic word for “breast” (male and female alike) or does it specifically refer to the “FEMALE breast”? (what, then, is the Hebrew for the male breast?)
    Because only in the latter case would your subsequent argument (i.e. “the God of Breasts” necessarily being female) make sense straight away!

  12. I’m sympathetic to what you’re trying to do, but your grammatical analysis is a little off:

    Starting with your footnote:

    1) You’ve confused gender and grammatical gender. Shad is a masculine noun, pure and simple. Nothing indicates a grammatical feminine gender; it lacks the feminine noun ending, doesn’t take feminine pronouns, and takes masculine plural morphemes. It’s a masculine noun. Not in your footnote but related: YHWH is a proper name and thus does not have morphemes, but always takes masculine pronoun agreement because it is the name of a male deity. Saying it is without gender based on what it means (!) is not really accurate.

    2) There is no such thing as a masculine plural construct noun with a 1cs pronominal suffix. Think about it. Look at your paradigms.

    3) Yes, K-B is entirely correct that it’s a gentitilic, and specifically the -ay form that is often preserved in geographical references. So reason this out; if it’s from shad, “breast,” then what would that mean? The place of breasts?

    4) You should think also about the doubled dalet you mentioned. That means it’s from a *different root* than SHIN-DALET-HEH, BDB’s reconstructed verb. Of course there is actually no attested verb SHIN-DALET-HEH in the Hebrew Bible, but whatever: the point is if it comes from that root, you would not have a doubling of the dalet in the noun form.

    The connection with Akkadian shadu has the same problem: the doubling in Akkadian forms is late, Neo-Assyrian. I’m not sure how great of a problem that really is given my perspective on when the Bible is composed, but even so, taking a noun shadu “mountain” and doubling the second radical before a gentilic ending is conceivable, I could find examples of this type of thing if you’d like, but turning an existing root “H” into a doubled middle radical is far less common. Taken together with the fact that the geographic/gentilic ending -ay makes a whole heck of a lot more sense with “mountain” than with “breasts,” and you’ll see why HALOT, the modern and better dictionary than BDB and standard scholarly reference, lists “Mountain Deity” as its preferred interpretation of El-Shaddai and does not list “God of Breasts” as even a possibility.

    As you point out, the Israelites are entirely comfortable with using feminine metaphor for their deity. But in the end he’s a god, not a goddess. They’re quite clear about the difference, and on a popular level they give him a wife—Asherah. She’s got big old breasts in all the figurines and drawings they left behind. YHWH does not.

    To be clear, I think God is beyond gender. I think celebrating feminine aspects of God whereever they can be found in tradition or in life experience is worthwhile. But I don’t believe in doing shoddy philological analysis to accomplish it.

    1. 1. Yes. Shad (in BDB) is identified as a masculine noun, and, no, it does not have any of the usual feminine endings. HALOT doesn’t identify a gender for the noun. So, you are correct that it is masculine in form and not irregular in taking masculine plural endings. I stand corrected on that. Nevertheless, in terms of meaning, the noun refers only to female breasts (or the breasts of jackals (Lam. 4:3).

      2. I have no idea what you mean that there is no such thing as a masculine plural construct noun with a 1cs pronominal suffix, unless you mean for the word breast alone. But HALOT lists this very form: שדי (sorry, can’t do vowel pointings, but it is shin qames dale patah yod. By form that is a masculine plural construct noun with a 1cs pronominal suffix (“my breasts”). Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your meaning (and I won’t stoop so low as to call your philology “shoddy”, thanks for that low blow), but I remember my paradigm charts and, yes, there are plenty of masculine plural construct nouns with pronominal suffixes. I’ve taught Hebrew for 21 years. I know my paradigms.

      3. Yes, HALOT (K-B) identifies it as a gentilic. The place of breasts certainly doesn’t sound as convincing as “the mountain place” but since K-B also indicates the close connections of this word with Canaanite religion, the place of breasts shouldn’t automatically be dismissed.

      4. As for the doubled dalet. Yes, this poses problems for my argument. I realize that a doubled dalet would much more likely come from a double ayin root than from a lamed he root, though it is not impossible. We are, of course, completely reliant on the Masoretic pointings both for the vowels and the dageshes. These were added 1000 years after the latest texts of the Hebrew Bible. And while I respect the Masoretic tradition, it is a tradition. Just because our hallowed lexicons do not consider the possibility that Shaddai could derive from breast doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it. I realize K-B (HALOT) is a much better lexicon than BDB. I used HALOT in my analysis. And no, HALOT doesn’t even mention the hypothetical root for shad (breast). But lexicons are interpretations, and they are open to being challenged. Just because there is a scholarly consensus on something does not mean it can’t and should not be questioned.

      Of course Yahweh is never portrayed with breasts like Asherah because Yahweh is never portrayed in statues at all, even as a man with a penis.

      Thanks for your comments (except for accusing me of shoddy philological analysis). I am perfectly happy to be challenged on this (and I should be). And I will continue working on my argument. But, when it comes to the etymology of Shaddai, as K-B says, “Despite several attempted and suggested explanations, the etymology of Shaddai has still not been completely clarified.” Doesn’t that invite us to consider other options even if they may seem far-fetched to those who think that the lexicons are the last word on this?

  13. 2. You’re right, this was a little harsh and unnecessary. It’s just that construct forms and pronominal forms are two different things—they have different historical bases. A form is only either construct or pronominal; it is not both. It is not marked for both. That the semantics are similar doesn’t change this. The forms are different. But this is speaking as a philologist—most people sticking with biblical Hebrew don’t learn it in this way, so perhaps it’s putting it a little fine. I just haven’t heard anyone say that in a Very Long Time, and anyone who had would have been blasted out of the second-year Hebrew class I took. Anyway so long as we’re dealing with this though, you’re still wrong about the HALOT entry: the form is dual, not plural, as SD always is.

    3/4–we’re looking here for the most probable answer. Had you portrayed “God of Breasts” as a *possible* solution to a difficult etymology and mused on the significance of that, I wouldn’t have posted. But no, you say with emphatic italics that El Shaddai is a feminine name for God. You call the etymology for shad/shadah the “‘easiest solution” to this etymological problem. While you give other etymological explanations, you dismiss them as avoiding the easiest etymological explanation. You accuse them of linguistic gymnastics. No: in fact, faced with a word that on first glance seems to come from SH-D-D, lexicographers ancient and modern tried to make sense of it out of it based on the root SH-D-D, not on the hypothetical root Sh-D-H. Portraying any of them as having an agenda avoiding the “easiest etymology”—one that ignores the evidence we *have* of a root—is disingenuous, and, I’ll say it again, shoddy. Sure, the Masoretes are a tradition. But you’re misleading your readers and your students if you imply that these pointings don’t *most of the time* show the historical basis of the words. Again, if you wanted to say *despite* the doubling, *depsite* the scholarly consensus based on real data, not, as you imply, some sort of anti-feminist bias, despite other good arguments, I think we should continue considering God of Breasts a real possibility, fine. But to treat it as “easiest” and the existing scholarly arguments as biases is, in my view, a bridge too far.

    As for YHWH’s penis, depends on how you interpret Kuntillet Ajrud!

    I think the Bible’s a piece of patriarchal ideology and should largely be rejected. I think God is beyond gender and have no problem portraying God as feminine—more power to her. If you can find some female name for God, great. But this is not one of them.

    1. 2. Nouns can be absolute or construct. Pronominal suffixes are attached to the construct form of nouns. That is how we were taught in our Hebrew classes and when we parse we say that a noun is “masculine plural construct with a 1cs pronominal suffix.” If that would get me kicked out of your second-year Hebrew class, then so be it. I wouldn’t want to be in your classes if you disparage your students so easily. That’s how it’s taught in our biblical Hebrew classes. And yes, yes. Of course the noun is dual. You can see that clearly in the absolute form. But, as I’m sure you know, the dual construct form looks just like a masculine plural construct form. This is a blog, not a technical Hebrew class. I could’ve explained dual, and maybe should have. But I didn’t think it was that important to the argument, especially since English translations don’t normally identify the dual form, such as “two breasts” or “a pair of breasts” instead of just “breasts.”

      3/4. Yes. Perhaps I was too forceful in claiming outright that this is a feminine name for God. I should have said, “Here’s a possibility” or “Let’s consider this.” When I revise the blog I will do so. I wanted to get this out there when I did because the issue of feminine language for God had become a big deal on the blogs and on Twitter. In my haste, I didn’t do it as carefully as I normally would. I am not trying to mislead anyone. I am trying to put out there a different perspective that you don’t see in the lexicons. Could I have argued it better? Yes. And I will. Could I be wrong? Yes.

      But this is not an academic paper nor is it SBL nor is it a conference. It’s a blog. It’s a place to explore ideas. I am planning on revising the blog later after the comments die down taking into account what others, including you, have said, rude or not.

      1. I can’t get overly excited about the dagesh when we have the absolutely grammatically indefensible miqqedash in the Song of the Sea. Does not it mean what normal miqdash means? Is it some otherwise unattested root? I don’t buy that.

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