Names and Images of God by Leann Williams

I volunteered, somewhat reluctantly, to serve on the Planning Committee for the 2018 Quaker Women’s Theology Conference at the end of the 2016 conference. Our first face-to-face meeting was in Seattle shortly after the election that gave us Donald Trump as president. At that time, all of us, regardless of our political perspective, were reeling from the lack of civility and the deep rancor of those times. As I clerked that meeting, I asked, “What does this conference mean to you and what are you hoping for in 2018?” The women gathered talked. I took notes. What we heard from one another was that the conference had provided a place of spiritual refuge. In those times it felt even more important to provide that place of spiritual refuge in light or our national political situation, and in light of the condition of Northwest Yearly Meeting’s deep schisms.

We chose the theme “Answering That of God in Every One” which is part of a longer famous George Fox quote. We chose that theme because to answer someone requires listening first. It implies that there is something of God in every person. How could we help each other do just that? We came up with the words “recognizing, imaging, naming, abiding.” Each word encompasses part of the process of “answering that of God in one another.”

Before we can recognize God in another, we need some experience of God in our own lives. We need some notion, image, or understanding of the Divine to look for in the other. We thought it might be helpful to explore names and images of God or Spirit together. I got excited about the many Old Testament names for God and the stories from which they emerge. I thought it could be helpful for both unprogrammed women that have far fewer words for God than Evangelicals who often have too many. The helpfulness would come from realizing that our names and images come from our own stories of the Divine Presence in our lives which is in keeping with the narrative theology the conference wishes to follow.

So, I embarked on a journey of studying the Old Testament names for God. I got to El Shaddai and found a treasure I did not expect. Controversy, confusion, weirdness, who could have known? Here’s what I discovered:

El Shaddai is most often translated in English versions of the Bible as God Almighty. The name Shaddai is used 41 or so times in the Old Testament, most often in the book of Job. However, when combined with El, in El Shaddai it is found only seven times exclusively in the story of the family of Abraham.

The etymology of the word is disputed among linguistic experts. The controversy revolves around which words are considered “root” words. The major opinions are Shaddai can be traced to:

shadad – a Hebrew verb meaning to destroy, overpower

sadu – an Akkadian noun meaning mountain or great strength

shad– a Hebrew word meaning breast

combined with ai – “my” my breast

combined with dai– pours out, heaps benefits – the God who is enough

So, what does El Shaddai reveal about God?  I can understand mountain and breast being related. Take for example the Grand Tetons, a mountain chain or the Rocky Mountains named by French fur traders viewing the jagged mountains protruding from the plains, the largest of which they called “le grande teton” (the big breast). But those two interpretations come from two different languages. God the destroyer, mountain or God the breast each carry significantly different implications.

So, it made sense to me to follow the story in which the name is revealed.

The first use of El Shaddai is in the story of Abraham when he is 99 years old. Almost 25 years earlier recorded in Genesis 12 Abram had received a leading from God to leave his hometown and move to a place God would show him as he traveled. God’s promise then was, “I will make you a great nation.” Exciting news since to this point Sarai, Abram’s wife, had been unable to conceive. When they arrived in Canaan the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” But there were no offspring. Life happened. About 10 years of life with significant marital and family discord. God repeats his promise in Genesis 15 to give Abram “a very great reward.” Abram’s reply reveals the couple’s struggle with childlessness. He says, “Sovereign Lord, what can You give me since I remain childless?” God responds, “One who will come forth from our own body will be your heir.” Time passes with no child. Sarai and Abram come up with a plan to have a child through Hagar, a servant. The plan is not without it’s disappointments and struggles once Ishmael is born. At 99 years old Abram, having had almost 25 years of disappointment, personal failures, marital strife, and other turmoil God comes again.

In Gensis 17 God says, “I am El Shaddai; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.  Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers… As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.  No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you… As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah.  I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” The answer to that question turned out to be, “YES”.

The name “El Shaddai” is used in Genesis 28 and 35 in the context of blessings of fruitfulness, and in Genesis 49 Jacob blesses Joseph and refers to Shaddai as the one

“who blesses you with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb.” There is no question in my mind that the correct interpretation of El Shaddai is related to breast. This name is an obviously feminine name for God. Breasts signify sustenance, sufficiency, intimacy.

Why the translation God Almighty? Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a scholar of ancient cultures and languages offers,

“The latter understanding of the name as Almighty, while allowing for the notion of all-sufficient supply stresses more the awesome power of God’s omnipotence and an objective more distant, or transcendent view of God. Perhaps this was driven in part by reluctance to view God in terms of subjective experience and closeness and also a reluctance to attribute to God feminine characteristics.”

Our names and images come out of our own experience of God with cultural and personal biases. I found the following commentary on El Shaddai by Witness Lee, a Chinese Christian author and Bible teacher, to be a great example:

“The title of God in Genesis 17:1, the all-sufficient God, in Hebrew… is el-Shaddai. El means the Strong One, the Mighty One, and Shaddai, implying the meaning of breast, udder, means all-sufficient. El-Shaddai is the Mighty One with an udder, the Mighty one who has the all-sufficient supply. An udder produces milk, and milk is the all-sufficient supply, having water, minerals and many vitamins in it and containing all that we need for our daily living. So, El-Shaddai means the all-sufficient Mighty One.

When Abraham did things by his natural self he forgot the source of his supply. In other words, he forgot God as his all-sufficient source of supply. Therefore, God came to Abraham and seemed to say, “I am the Mighty One with an udder. Are you hungry or thirsty? Come to this udder. The source of your supply is not your natural self, but I the Mighty One with an udder… I am the source. You are not the source. You should not live on your own or by yourself. You have to live by Me as the source of your supply.”

Maybe if you grew up on a farm the image of God an udder would be meaningful, but for me, breast is a much more powerful image. My family of origin was not particularly affectionate. I don’t have warm fuzzy memories of cuddling with my mom. I do have warm memories of nursing my own babies. There was tenderness, trust, complete dependence on my babies’ part and an unrestricted desire to provide on mine. That’s the picture of God here: tenderly holding us waiting to provide all that we need from her supply that does not run dry.

I have two points to this message today. The first is that in scripture there are lovely images of the Divine feminine. I believe El Shaddai is a clearly feminine name for God. My second point is that we are bound by our own experience of time, culture, language, etc. and develop images of God accordingly. The names and images of God that speak deeply to us arise from our own experience. We will all benefit by broader perspectives and different understandings as we listen to one another in the process of imaging and naming the Divine.

What name or image of God speaks to you today?


Message delivered by Leann Williams on Sunday, May 20, 2018 at Spokane Friends Church

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