Saturday, February 27, 2016

EL SHADDAI

I AM    February 27, 2016

The 1st reading on the third Sunday in Lent is Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15. It contains the best definition/description/summary of God in the Judeo/Christian tradition—I AM. God also says in this passage, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But the name of God for these patriarchs was El Shaddai, the Breasted God (Exodus 6:3).

Unfortunately, Bible translations commonly render El Shaddai  as "God Almighty," following early influential translations. But "God Almighty" subverts the original meaning, as shown by David Biale in a February 1982 article for the journaal, History of Religions.

The ordinary Hebrew word shad means “breast.” In ancient Akkad (north of Babylonia) shadu meant both “breast” and “mountain,” a link easily understood. The Egyptian word, shdi, meant “to suckle.” The ending –ai, an Ugaritic feminine ending, occurs in the name of Abraham’s wife—Sarai.

Biale adds that the term’s context in biblical texts supports the conclusion that El Shaddai should be translated “God, the Breasted One.” Genesis 49:25-26 asks that El Shaddai bring
blessings of the heavens above,
blessings of the abyss below,
blessings of breasts [shadayim] and womb [rehem]
blessings of fresh grain and blossoms,
blessings of the everlasting mountains,
delights of the eternal hills.
Mountains and hills follow breasts and womb, just one verse of seven in Genesis indicating that “God, the Breasted One” inhabits the Book of Genesis. She is the fertility Goddess, the One who generates and regenerates.

More evidence of the Goddess in the Bible comes from Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. She tells us that the Hebrew word for "womb"—rehem—is metaphorically and grammatically linked to the Hebrew word for compassion or mercy. Womb metaphors saturate the scriptures, suffusing them with female images of the Holy One. Trible observes,
The entire process of birthing has been attributed to the deity. In various passages,
God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it.
Translations often conceal the feminine power.

David Biale, who makes the case for Shaddai being the Goddess without ever using the word “Goddess,” concedes that for exilic and postexilic authors in later scriptures, the name meant a storm and war god. He considers it
understandable that the Septuagint and the Vulgate [two influential translations] should render Shaddai as the ‘Almighty.’
But Biale thinks that Shaddai as “remote, mysterious, and destructive” may have been adopted “because it so thoroughly contradicted the fertility interpretation.” In other words, to counter any hint of the Goddess.

The word Yahweh also is the product of sexism. Scholars think it derived from the verb “to be” and originally carried no gender bias. Scriptures write the name of God as YHWH, four consonants of the Hebrew name of God, because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Out of fearful reverence, the ancestors of the Jews avoided pronouncing the name and substituted Adonai, translated “Lord” in English. The original pronunciation of YHWH is lost. 

Today the name of God in the Old Testament is written and pronounced Yahweh. "The Lord,” a male individual, emerged from patriarchal pressure and the human inclination to personify God. But imagining Holiness as a lord subverts the meaning of the revelation in Exodus 3:14.


October 3, 2013
During the last half year I spent at the School of Theology I had gotten so fed up with HeHimHis God-talk that I started saying in classes, “God is not three guys in the sky.”  I didn’t know then and don’t know now how much this sank in to fellow classmates (I know professors fully understood the implications), but one day a man I assume was a seminarian handed me a little pamphlet entitled, “El Shaddai: A Feminine Aspect of God.” It was my introduction to a fascinating subject.

David Biale in “The God with Breasts” examines in more detail El Shaddai, the Goddess of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob invoked in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus. He manages to do this without ever using the word “Goddess,” no doubt to gain entry to Christian minds, for whom “Goddess” is a dirty word.

El Shaddai was the Hebrew name of the Goddess worshipped around the globe in ancient times, which thought of what we call “God” as female. To people not conditioned as Christians, it seems entirely natural for the Creator to be imagined female rather than male. Bible translator Rodney Venberg learned this when he struggled to translate the Bible for people in Chad, Africa. For The Bible Translator, 35, he wrote:
To speak of God (Ifray) with such terms as “he” and “Father” was totally inconsistent with their grammar and went against their whole notion of the creation (after all had a man ever given birth to a child?).   
Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality was the first to teach me that the Hebrew word for “mercy” is the word for “womb.” And David Biale elaborates. He finds that five of six Genesis passages invoke El Shaddai in fertility blessings, following the “be fruitful and multiply” pattern. In the exception, Genesis 43:14, “the author senses the association between rahamim (mercy) and rehem (womb).”  Genesis 49:25-26 asks that El Shaddai bring
the blessings of the heavens above,
the blessings of the abyss below,
the blessings of breasts [shadayim] and womb[rahem]
the blessings of fresh grain and blossoms,
the blessings of the everlasting mountains,
the delights of the eternal hills.
**As I research this, I find variant spellings of the Hebrew words.
Biale notes that this passage gives not only a fertility blessing but also a wordplay suggesting a meaning for the name El Shaddai.  In ancient Akkad (north of Babylonia) shadu meant both “breast” and “mountain,” a link easily understood. In fact, as Biale pointed out, we can easily see the association in the blessings quoted here, where mountains and hills follow breasts and womb. He informs us further that shdi meant “to suckle” in Egyptian.

But my Bibles, both NAB and RSV, translate this name of God as “The Almighty,” following the authors of biblical books after the Babylonian Exile who thought of Her as a storm and war god. The influential Septuagint and Vulgate translations used that treatment and it stuck. But how inappropriate! My Inclusive Bible translates the name El Shaddai as the Breasted One.

Readers of this blogpost, know that “The Almighty” in the first two books of the Bible really is El Shaddai, the Breasted One.

Just as what we call “God” is not 3 guys in the sky, it also is not a female individual. Once we understand the one, we understand the other. “Force” or “Infinity” or “Beauty” might be better names than either Father or Mother. This is certain—the ubiquitous and mandated “father” and “lord” diminish the idea of God. Once we get past the ingrained image of the male god, we may be ready to comprehend Karl Rahner’s statement that God is not an individual. God certainly is not a mere humanlike individual, more certainly not a specifically male individual.

Atheists would be less contemptuous of Christians if more of us understood this.

Funny facts about genderconfusion in Hebrew add piquancy to this topic.  The Hebrew words for womb, breast, and nipple are masculine and the Hebrew noun denoting the foreskin of a penis is feminine. Crazy and amusing, right? But not surprising to me because similar craziness exists in German.
It reinforces something I learned from Carl Jung: each of us has characteristics of both sexes in her or his makeup. And the Creator not only encompasses both genders but invented gender itself.



El Shaddei again, December 12, 2013
When I have a question about scripture, I ask Vincent Smiles, scripture professor at St. Ben’s/St.Johns. I asked Vincent if El is masculine and whether ancient Hebrew had any term for “Goddess.” He wrote,
Yes, El is masculine and the texts suggest a masculine god was envisaged.
I cannot find a Hebrew word for goddess, which is not to say there is no such word.
El Shaddai might mean ‘breasted god’ and have originally been a name of a female deity, but there is no clear evidence that Israel understood the word in that way. The Hebrew Bible uses it exclusively in the sense of a powerful ‘almighty god’ with no hint of feminine overtones, as far as I can tell.

All of this goes along with the fact that even when a distinctly feminine IMAGE of God is present in Hebrew texts, the pronouns and verbs (verbs are ‘gendered’ in Hebrew) are always masculine.
It all just makes clear the rock hard androcentrism of the culture and language of the Bible. The better news is in texts like Luke 15:8-10, the woman who images God in Jesus’ parable.
In my previous post on El Shaddai I quoted scholar David Biale, whose analysis in the journal History of Religions harmonizes with Vincent’s statementExamining the biblical passages in which El Shaddai appears, Biale makes the case for Shaddai being a goddess, but he never uses the word “goddess” because to Hebrew authors in later literature, the name meant a storm and war god.
For this reason he considers it “understandable that the Septuagint and the Vulgate [two influential translations] should render Shaddai as the ‘Almighty.’” 

 He thinks it possible that Shaddai as “remote, mysterious, and destructive” may have been adopted “because it so thoroughly contradicted the fertility interpretation.” He refers to El Shaddai “as a fertility god—a god with breasts” and writes that Israel must “return to the ‘breast’ of the true God. Apparently he understands well the malign influence of patriarchy because he writes about “a surreptitious sex change.”

Biale finds that five of six Genesis passages invoke El Shaddai in fertility blessings, following the “be fruitful and multiply” pattern.  You will find more of his analysis in my previous post, El Shaddai.

Scholars agree that Jewish ancestors, known as Hebrews or Israelites, brought the name of Shaddai with them when they moved to Canaan from Mesopotamia. In Exodus 6:3 God replaces the divine name El Shaddai with the name YHWH.

This tetragrammaton (four letters) was used because the Israelites avoided saying aloud the holy name out of “superstitious fear, according to Biale. We do not know what YHWH stands for because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels.
What we know is that the patriarchy deleted feminine imagery of the Divine. And we are still living with it.
The Israelites did what other patriarchal cultures did—turned feminine imagery of the Divine into male imagery.

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