El-Shaddai, God Almighty

This post is part of a series about the names of God in the Bible. This series is based off of the study that took place in our Ladies’ Bible Class. You can watch those sessions online at WestsideLife.org/media. Just look for the “Name Above All Names” media series.

“God is aware of your plight, and He is working on your behalf for good. Regardless of how dark the situation is and how long you’ve waited, keep your faith in God because ultimately He will keep you. If you’re still stranded on what seems to be a dead-end road, look to God to be with you as you wait for your breakthrough. He is El Shaddai—the Almighty God who sustains you.”Tony Evans, The Power of God’s Names (pp. 196)

El-Shaddai, God Almighty

Today we focus on the name El-Shaddai, or God Almighty. This name is used seven times in the Bible, mostly in Genesis. The name Shaddai by itself (i.e. “The Almighty,” instead of “God Almighty”) occurs about 40 more times, mostly in Job. 

Like El-Roi (the God who sees me) and Jehovah-Jireh (The Lord Will Provide), El-Shaddai first occurs in the story of Abraham—specifically Genesis 17:1. God reveals this name when he establishes his covenant with Abraham and promises him an abundance of descendants. And let’s not forget how unrealistic that promise would have sounded since Abraham was rather old and Sarah was far past child-bearing age!

God’s timing couldn’t have been better. Abraham and Sarah had just taken matters into their own hands by having Abraham conceive a child with Hagar. This was an act of desperation, not faith. It was not part of God’s plan, and in fact it was a result of Abraham and Sarah deciding that God’s promises weren’t coming true after all. Abraham and Sarah ended up with opposite of what they were hoping for. Instead of bringing joy, their plan just led to jealousy and resentment.

Tony Evans writes about the doubt and despair Abraham and Sarah must have been feeling in this moment:

“God introduces His name El Shaddai to Abram 25 years after the promise was first given. Both Abram and Sarai had become old and undoubtedly weary. They had tried their own methods in an attempt to help God out, but nothing positive had come of it. In fact, the opposite occurred. So now they sat waiting, without an heir, most likely assuming God had abandoned His promise.” 

In Genesis 17, God reveals himself as the Almighty God against the backdrop of a situation that seemed like a physical impossibility. But as it turns out, Abraham and Sarah’s inability to conceive was no obstacle at all to the all-powerful, omnipotent God of the universe.

Be Fruitful and Multiply (Genesis 17)

Genesis 17 goes something like this:

  • God reveals himself as El-Shaddai
  • God promises the blessings of the Covenant to Abraham (descendants, Promised Land)
  • God gives Abraham and Sarah their new names
  • God requires circumcision
  • God tells Abraham that Isaac will be the child of the promise.

If there is any kind of “first impression” when it comes to El-Shaddai, it has to do with fertility and an abundance of descendants:

  • “I will … greatly increase your numbers.” (v. 2)
  • “You will be the father of many nations.” (v. 4)
  • “A father of many nations.” (v. 5)
  • “I will make you very fruitful” (v. 6)
  • “Mother of nations” (Sarah, v. 16)
  • “I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers.” (Ishmael, v. 20)
  • “Descendants” is mentioned six times in ch. 17
  • “Generation” is mentioned three times in ch. 17

El-Shaddai is the God who will turn the promise of uncountable descendants into reality. Because God is God Almighty, the focus is on the power he has to make his promises come true, regardless of our human circumstances.

Repeated for Five Generations

The rest of Genesis tells the story of the first four generations of this promise: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Although not main characters in the Biblical narrative, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh are also briefly mentioned in Genesis, bringing the total to five.

It is no coincidence that the name “El-Shaddai” is mentioned in all five generations:

  1. Abraham: Genesis 17:1-2
  2. Isaac: Genesis 28:1-4
  3. Jacob: Genesis 35:11-13
  4. Joseph (plus his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, making five generations): Genesis 48:1-4

The Patriarchs of Israel passed down this name of God from generation to generation as a reminder of God’s power to bring his good plans to completion, no matter what kinds of human obstacles seemed to stand in the way.

Be Fruitful and Multiply

As we just saw, when God revealed himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai, there was a strong emphasis on numerous descendants (e.g. “Then I will greatly increase your numbers,” Genesis 17:2). 

When each subsequent generation spoke (or heard) the name God Almighty, this promise was repeated.

  • When Isaac invoked the name in his blessing to Jacob, he said, “May God Almighty [El-Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3).
  • When God reveled himself as El-Shaddai to Isaac’s son Jacob, he said, “I am God Almighty [El-Shaddai]; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants.” (Genesis 35:11)
  • When Jacob blessed his son Joseph and his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, he said, “God Almighty [El-Shaddai] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me 4 and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’” (Genesis 48:3-4)

The first five generations of the promise came to know God Almighty as the powerful God who would fulfill his promises. And every subsequent generation became a testimony to God’s ability to fulfill his promises, no matter what adversity they faced.

The Dictionary Definition of El-Shaddai is Clear as Mud

When it comes to what a word (or name) means, there’s the dictionary definition on the one hand and the literary context on the other. Our previous discussion about El-Shaddai in the five generations of the promise focused on the literary context. What was happening in the story when El-Shaddai was named? What do those stories tell us about the character of God? Those questions focus on context.

But what about the dictionary definition of El-Shaddai? El is the shortened, singular form of Elohim, the second most common name for God in the Bible. 

Shaddai is a bit of a mystery. Most words have a story of why they came to mean what they mean. The science of tracing how words came to be is called etymology. For many words, there’s a relatively straightforward explanation of its etymology because we have enough written documents that show how the language evolved over time. 

But when we don’t have much of the prior documentation, it can be difficult for scholars to determine why a word came to mean what it means.

That’s essentially the case with Shaddai. We know that El means God, but there’s not much background info on what Shaddai really means. 

Notice how these two Biblical scholars are quick to admit that we really don’t know the full story:

  • “The exact origin, history, and etymology of the name are highly debated.” Lisa W. Davison, “EL SHADDAI,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 403.
  • “It is somewhat more difficult to determine exactly the facts about the title ‘El-Shaddai.’” Martin Rose, “NAMES OF GOD IN THE OT,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 4:1,005.

These scholars write in the very polite, diplomatic style associated with formal, academic publications. Perhaps you’ll permit me to translate their sentences into something a little more realistic:

“We have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but we’ll spend the next 10-15 pages walking through all of the different ideas that really smart dudes and dudettes from across the centuries have put forth, and hopefully one of them is right—but to reiterate, we really have no clue what’s happening. Please send snacks. We’re hungry.”

Three Possibilities

Although scholars are relatively uncertain about the original meaning (etymology) of El-Shaddai, it likely has to do with strength, fertility, and nourishment. 

One theory is that Shaddai is associated with the Hebrew word Shadad, which means “to deal violent (with something or someone), to devastate.” That certainly emphasizes the strength (power, might) aspect of God Almighty.

A second possibility is that Shaddai comes from the Hebrew word Shad, meaning breast or chest. This word is used primarily to describe a child nursing at their mother’s breast. This carries connotations of nurturing, nourishment, and new life. This seems fit well with the emphasis on numerous descendants in El-Shaddai passages in Genesis. 

Another possibility is that Shaddai comes from Shidah, a Hebrew word for “pour out,” as in God pours out his blessings.

“God Almighty” in English Bibles

For what it’s worth, the primary reason why English Bibles translate El-Shaddai as God Almighty has to do with some early Greek versions of the Bible. They typically use the word pantokratór, a compound word that combines all (panto) and power/might (kratos). And from there we see how All + Mighty = Almighty. 

The dictionary definition probably points us towards God the powerful warrior, while the literary context of the El-Shaddai passages in Genesis emphasizes fertility and the promise of numerous descendants. 

Perhaps the best approach is to understand that El-Shaddai encompasses all of the above: strength, love, nourishment, fertility, and the pouring out of God’s blessings.

The Final Word

Today’s final word goes to Tony Evans, who wrote this at the end of his chapter on El-Shaddai:

“God is aware of your plight, and He is working on your behalf for good. Regardless of how dark the situation is and how long you’ve waited, keep your faith in God because ultimately He will keep you. If you’re still stranded on what seems to be a dead-end road, look to God to be with you as you wait for your breakthrough. He is El Shaddai—the Almighty God who sustains you. And when the day comes for your victory, praise Him. Praise Him because He saw you through what seemed like a hopeless situation.”