Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Does El Shaddai mean “The God with Breasts”?


Some believe that El Shaddai, a name or designation of God that is used several times in the Hebrew Bible, is a feminine name and that it means “the God with breasts” or something similar. Here is some information on this idea.

We don’t really know the sense behind El Shaddai. We can only go by etymology (the common meanings of parts of the word) and, more importantly, by context. However, etymology can be misleading and the context of verses where El Shaddai appears is varied. (For example, see Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod. 6:3; Ezek. 10:5.)

The Hebrew word shad (שַׁד), which is grammatically masculine, can mean “breast” but it also has other meanings, and I see no compelling evidence to translate El Shaddai (which is also grammatically masculine) as “the God with breasts.”

Shaddai Translated in the Septuagint (LXX)

The translators of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) did not believe El Shaddai had anything to with breasts. Hopefully, there was still some memory of how El Shaddai was actually used among the ancient Israelites when the translators were translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the third to first centuries BCE.

When referring to God, the word shaddai (with or without El) is usually translated in the Septuagint simply as theos (“God”). However, in Job 5:17, 27:13, 32:8, 33:4, 34:10, and 37:22, shaddai (without El) is translated as pantokratōr (“almighty/ omnipotent”). Furthermore, shaddai (without El) is translated as ouranos (the Greek word for “heaven/ sky”) in Psalm 91:1. And shaddai (in El Shaddai) is transliterated as “saddai” in Ezekiel 10:5. The Septuagint never translates shaddai with a word that means breasts when referring to God.

Shaddai in Hebrew Lexicons

While Hebrew scholars today give suggestions on what El Shaddai might mean, none draw firm conclusions. Here are some entries for Shaddai (šadday), as it relates to El Shaddai, in respected Hebrew dictionaries and lexicons.

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT)

This paragraph in TDOT discusses the unlikely possibility that šadday means breast.

Breast. The understanding of Heb. šadday as “breast” is related to šadû, “mountain,” but moves away from this etymological basis in scholarly discussion in that this interpretation of ʾēl šadday as a god with breasts takes place against the background of the promises of increase in the book of Genesis (cf. Zoller). The “God with breasts” is explained by way of an assimilation of Canaanite fertility gods with Yahweh, a process leading to an “androgynous monotheism” (cf. Biale). The accompanying textual interpretations, however, are rather far-fetched, and as such the explanation of ʾēl šadday based on them is untenable.

Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (TLOT)

Here are two excerpts from TLOT that discuss Shaddai. Note the last line.

(f) Like the ancient transls., the etymologies suggested more recently also differ rather considerably. No consensus has yet developed. Since the material presently available does not permit an assured decision concerning a given hypothesis, reference will be made in the following to the more important older—also in terms of the history of the discipline—and more recent explanations suggested and briefly to the pertinent critical objections.
. . .

(4) šadday is related to the Sem. word for “breast” (Ug. ṯd, Hebr. dual šādayim, Aram. dual tedayyāʾ, Arab. ṯady) and is the name of a fertility deity. Cf. Buxtorf, op. cit. 276, who refers to the classical designation of goddesses (!) as mammosa (Ceres, Diana, Isis); cf. also P. Haupt, FS Wellhausen 212; and Albright and Zoller under (6). Since šadday is a masc. deity, this etymology deserves little attention.

New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE)

The NIDOTTE simply says, “‘God of the breasts’ has also been suggested.”

4. El Shaddai. The identification with Yahweh is made clear in Exod 6:3 (יְהוָה), which links God’s revelation to the ancestors by the name of El Shaddai to Mosaic Israel (see Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3, texts often associated with the P tradition). Its common usage in poetic texts is noteworthy, as is its association with creation and blessing (Gen 49:25). The name occurs extensively throughout Job, a book without specific Israelite references. The name also occurs in association with the non-Israelite Balaam (Num 24:4, 16); in v. 16 it is par. to El Elyon (elsewhere only in Ps 91:1). The meaning of the name remains uncertain. Most often it is linked to mountains (hence, “God, [one] of the mountain[s]”), as gods often were in the ANE. “God of the breasts” has also been suggested. The translation “God Almighty” is based on the LXX; an abstraction of an originally concrete image, this may reflect an educated guess as to meaning on the part of the LXX translators.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT)

Here are two excerpts from the entry on El Shaddai in TWOT. It only mentions what it considers to be “tenable suggestions.” There is no mention of “breasts.”

… We need to mention only some of the more tenable suggestions. One is that shadday is to be connected with the Hebrew verb shadad “to destroy,” hence “my destroyer.” A second possibility, and this is the most widely accepted today, is that shadday is to be connected with the Akkadian word, šadu “mountain.” Thus El Shaddai would translate into English something like “God/El of the mountain,” i.e. God’s abode. The ending –ay is to be understood as an adjectival suffix (and thus the translation “of the…. “)
. . .

As El Shaddai God manifested himself to the patriarchs (Exo 6:3): specifically to Abraham, Gen 17:1; to Isaac, Gen 28:3; and to Jacob, Gen 35:11; Gen 43:14, Gen 48:3. The context for most of these references is the covenant, more precisely the command for obedience and faithfulness on the part of the vassal and the promise of progeny by God. It is not to the hills (natural phenomenon) that these men of faith looked for confidence but to the Lord of these hills, the Lord of the mountain (Psa 121:1-2).

Does El Shaddai mean “the God with breasts” or “many-breasted one”? Does it connote maternity or femininity? Probably not.

Explore more

My article, Is God Male or Masculine? is here.
Robin Cohn has an interesting discussion on El Shaddai here.
All 48 occurrences of shaddai in the Hebrew Bible are on BibleHub here.
Still more useful information is on Wikipedia here.

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