A Brief Study of El Shaddai

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of February 7. Enjoy!

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This reflection paper will explore the prophet Joel’s use of a particular Hebrew proper name in his prophecy regarding the Day of Yahweh. Near the end of the first chapter, the book reads, “Alas for the day! For the day of (Yahweh) is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Jl 1:15 NRSV). This verse, which takes from its close parallel in Isaiah 13:6, features a footnote in my Bible that the word “Almighty” is the current adaptation of the Hebrew word “Shaddai”; in fact, most English translations choose to interpret the confusing Hebrew term as a descriptive feature for Yahweh rather than its variety of other possible constructions. Though this is understandable for our modern monotheistic setting, Shaddai is rendered in the NRSV translation of both Joel and Isaiah as a simile, which sparked a question: am I reading a metaphor for some well-known person or deity who would have been plainly obvious to the biblical writers, or is the author simply conveying the destructive characteristic of Yahweh?

After further research, I found that the terms “Shaddai” or “El Shaddai” appear 48 times in the Hebrew Bible. Six of these occurrences are in Genesis, three are in the remainder of the Pentateuch, and a remarkable 31 mentions come from Job alone.[1] In seeking to understand the origin of the term, however, scholarly attention has focused on the mentions from Genesis, where Shaddai is strongly connected to promises of fertility, and especially, distinguishing characteristics of the female anatomy. While etymologically a handful of meanings have been suggested, David Biale agrees that “the original meaning of shadu was probably ‘breast’ which, by a psychological association evident to the author of the Enûma Elish in ancient times and to Freud in our own, came to mean mountain.”[2] Nowhere is this double entendre more evident than in Genesis 49, when an aging Jacob invokes the blessing of Shaddai on Joseph that will manifest as “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gn 49:25 NRSV). Jacob continues to remark that his blessing upon Joseph is “stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains” (Gn 49:26 NRSV). Furthermore, of the remaining mentions of Shaddai in Genesis, “four are fertility blessings of the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ variety,”[3] as evidenced by the promise to Abraham (Gn 17:1-7) and Isaac’s instruction for Jacob to take a wife from the house of Bethuel (Gn 28:1-5).

With the connection of Shaddai and fertility firmly established, the quest to understand the prophetic meaning of the term can begin. Surely Isaiah and Joel were not implying that the Day of Yahweh would be like one filled with breasts and fertility. This has led Biale to conclude that Shaddai language fell out of popularity among writers of the Old Testament books, perhaps around the seventh century b.c.e. when King Josiah’s reforms drove out Caananite fertility practices, including Asherah worship. In ridding the land of cultic behavior, however, Israelites had to deal with their own patriarchal fixation on Shaddai. Biale writes, “The psychological associations between El Shaddai and Asherah must have become embarrassing and even dangerous. Yet the old name could not be utterly suppressed.”[4] The solution was to retain the name Shaddai, but ascribe warrior-like qualities to the pseudo-deity, as in the Psalms: “When the Almighty scattered kings there, snow fell on Zalmon” (Ps 68:14 NRSV). Effectively, Shaddai’s fertility powers and breasts had been covered up, but Shaddai became powerful in conquest.

So while Joel piggybacks on the ideas of Isaiah, a calculated move that serves to further legitimize both within the canon, neither seems aware of Shaddai’s previous fertility qualities. Instead, both prophets are in agreement: the Day of Yahweh will bring destruction similar to that of an almighty warrior-deity, an alter ego of Yahweh. The motherly characteristics of Yahweh, by which he was known to the patriarchs (Ex 6:3), are sadly lost to history.


[1] David Biale, “The God with Breasts: El Shaddai in the Bible,” History of Religions 21, no. 3 (Feb. 1982), 243.

[2] Ibid., 240-241.

[3] Ibid., 247.

[4] Ibid., 254-255.

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