Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I hear songs in which the name El Shadday is mentioned, but I have no idea what it means. Could you please tell me the meaning of that name?
The Hebrew ’el means “God” and shadday (or shadai)…, well, no one knows exactly what it means. A number of possible translations are offered, but no scholarly consensus exists about the root meaning of the name. The most common English rendering, “Almighty;” is based on a Greek translation of the Old Testament—one of the terms used is pantokrator (“all-powerful, almighty”—Latin: omnipotens). That translation seems best theologically. The name is used 40 times in the Old Testament. The full name appears only six times, while shadday is employed 34 times, suggesting that this is a proper name for God. What is important for us is its usage in the Bible.
1. General Comments: Shadday was used in the ancient Near East to designate a deity or group of deities. Since the term is not well attested, it is difficult to establish the nature and role of those deities. The fact that the term is used in the Old Testament suggests that the role of those gods was important in the surrounding cultures. In Israel (’El) Shadday was employed as another name for Yahweh (e.g., Gen.17:1; cf. 35:11; Ex. 6:3), indicating an intentional rejection of the non-Israelite usage. It was a name for God that Israelites had in common with non-Israelites. That was not the case with the name Yahweh.
2. Shadday: A God Who Blesses: Two important ideas are associated with this divine name in Genesis. First, it is particularly employed when divine speech is emphasized. God appeared and spoke to Abram (Gen. 17:1) and to Jacob (Gen. 35:11; 48:3). He was near them.
Second, He is the God who promised descendants and land to the patriarchs; He is the God of blessings and fruitfulness (Gen. 17:1, 2; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3; 49:25). God revealed those aspects of His character in a special way to the patriarchs. After the Exodus from Egypt, the name Yahweh was emphasized to indicate that He was now fulfilling His promises and personally appearing and speaking to His people (Ex. 6:3; 19:16).
3. Shadday: A Warrior: The name is used also in the story of Balaam, a non-Israelite hired to curse Israel, but whom the Lord used to bless His people. Shadday is the Lord who revealed His will though a revelation promising Israel victories over the nations (Num. 24:4; cf. Ps. 68:4; Isa. 13:6), particularly through a messianic figure (Isa. 24:16). According to Isaiah, it is in His capacity as warrior that He will defeat Babylon (Isa. 13:6). But He could also fight against His unfaithful people, depriving them of the fruitfulness and fertility of the land (Joel 1:15).
4. Shadday: A Righteous God: The name surfaces in the story of Job, a non-Israelite. He blessed (Job 29:5-10) and gave life (Job 32:8; 33:4), but Job experienced Him as the God who removed all blessings from him without reason. Job’s friends emphasized the righteousness of Shadday based on the idea of divine retribution (God always punishes sinners and blesses the righteous; Job 8:3; 34:10, 12).
Job rejected that rigid understanding of Shadday (Job 6:4; 21:15; 24:1) and charged Him with inflicting pain on him for no reason (Job 6:4; 27:2; also Ruth 1:20, 21). However, he recognized that Shadday is indeed a God of justice, and if he could appear before Him his case would be solved (Job 13:3; 31:35). God finally spoke to Job as Shadday: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” (Job 40:2). He was near enough to Job to speak to him.
Since (’El) Shadday was a name used by non-Israelites it is understandable that it would appear in biblical narratives that don’t primarily deal with Israel (Genesis, Job, Ruth) and in the mouth of non-Israelites (Balaam). The name emphasizes the nearness of Yahweh, who blesses and preserves justice in the world. He is a cosmic God who makes the world fruitful and keeps social order through an unfathomable wisdom not comprehended by humans (Job 37:23). As a God of blessings, He has the power to withhold and to withdraw blessings according to His wisdom. The name Shadday provides some universal aspects of the vision of God that transcends religious borders, yet He remains at the same time Yahweh, the God of His people.