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February 1, 2010

by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director

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God answers, “I Am Who I Am,” the uncaused, uncreated, independent maker of all things. Through this name, God not only declares His eternal existence but affirms His covenant relationship with His people that had begun generations before with a man named Abram. In Genesis 14 and 15, Abram knows God as El Elyon, the Most High God who had supreme power over all nations. Through Him, Abram would receive the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.

But in Genesis 17, God introduces Himself by a new name, translated “Almighty God” in most Bibles today. In Hebrew, the name is Shaddai, and unlike the many other Hebrew words with which God identifies Himself, this one is very hard to define. It is used 48 times in the Old Testament, 42 of them during the patriarchal period, and despite the efforts of both Jewish and Christian scholars throughout the ages, there is still some question as to what it literally means.

The Powerful Guardian

Some have suggested that shaddai is derived from the Akkadian word shadu meaning “mountain.” In the ancient Middle East, people believed that mountains were the dwelling places of gods and came to represent the sovereignty of the gods who sat upon them. In Psalm 132, God states that He chose Mount  Zion as His throne. In Psalm 121:1, David lifts his eyes to the hills from whence his help would come. This language by the writers of the Bible has caused some to believe that El Shaddai might be translated “God, the one of the mountain.”

Others suggest that shaddai refers to God’s capacity to overpower and destroy His enemies. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Hebrew word shadad means “to ravage or utterly lay waste.” Such usage is seen in Psalm 68:14 and Isaiah 13:6 where God is referred to as the Almighty, the One who scatters and destroys, suggesting shadad as the foundation for the modern translation “Almighty God.”

The Talmud (rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures) presents another very interesting suggestion. The rabbis suggest shaddai is an acronym for  shomer deletot Israel, which means “guardian of the doors of Israel.” This is why the letter shin (ש), representing Shaddai, is found carved into or written upon the mezuzah (small box with Scripture inside), which has adorned the doorposts of Jewish homes the world over for millennia.

The Compassionate Father

Others associate shaddai with the Hebrew word shad meaning “breast.”  In the Torah (Gen.-Deut.), shaddai is often associated with the blessing of fertility. In Genesis 17:6, God tells Abram, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you…” Certainly it is because of God’s “might” that He is able to promise this blessing to Abram and then fulfill it. So the notion of God’s power is intricately connected to this concept, rendering its meaning, “God who is powerful to provide offspring.”

But the context of shaddai in God’s early interaction with His people goes beyond that of fertility to that of a loving parent, showering His children with gifts and His ongoing protection and direction. Its first occurrence is in Genesis 17:1, where Shaddai promises an everlasting relationship with Abram’s descendants:  “I am Almighty God…,” which can be translated “I will be God to you.” This remarkable statement is the bedrock upon which all future covenants will be built and through which God’s blessing for His children will flow.

In Genesis 49:25, Jacob calls on Shaddai and promises his son Joseph the blessings of heaven, of the deep beneath, of the breasts, and of the womb. In Judaism, the heavens are the storehouse of God from which all sustenance comes, and the deep represents the blessing of water in a desert place. The Hebrew word for “womb” is racham,meaning “compassion,” much like the love with which a mother cherishes her unborn child. The blessing of the breasts in this context may also refer to the tender love a mother has for the child she has borne. So, beyond fertility, this verse refers to the extravagant, incomprehensible love and tenderness that God has for His children.


If we put these pieces of the shaddai puzzle together, we get a beautiful picture of an all-powerful God who reigns supremely over all the earth, whose will is sovereign and who has the power to destroy. Yet, He has chosen to enter into covenant relationship with His children, protecting and nurturing them as a loving parent, tenderly providing for their every need…a relationship that will last not years, centuries, or millennia…but forever.


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