Chaos & Kings – Yahweh and Shaddai

In the Hebrew Scriptures, YHWH is undoubtedly the God of Judah. David adamantly demanded that the elders of all the sebetiy (tribes) follow him. The worship of YHWH was one of the strongest unifying forces of his rule, but also one of the most short lived. Although Judah remained, more or less, worshipers of YHWH, the other sebetiy worshiped all kinds of other gods, as they had before David. YHWH had a lot of competition for the people’s devotion.

We have to remember that gods were geographic and cultural. If you lived in certain areas, you worshiped the gods of that area. If your culture overwhelmed another, it was because the gods of your region were now stronger than the gods of the neighboring region and wanted to extend their dwelling.

Even YHWH worship was not exclusively monotheistic – an idea that is hard for us to comprehend. In the Psalms, it is sometimes apparent that YHWH was not the only god the Israelites recognized, calling him “king above all gods.” [Psalm 95:2] While we often downplay the presence of the term “YHWH my God” in David’s Psalms, it probably indicates the pluralism of his day. It is an open admission that other people worship other gods.

What is fascinating is that the worship of YHWH seems to have been able to appropriate many of the names and attributes for the gods of the other peoples. They absorb these things into their descriptions of YHWH – so YHWH absorbs the imagery of Ba’al-Hadad [Psalm 18:3, 104:3], and they fully appropriate the term ‘El, which was originally a generic term for any deity. It is not necessarily syncretism because they recognize the truth of YHWH that the pagan culture hints at and redeem it while leaving behind (in theory) the paganism itself.

Perhaps nowhere else is this more startling than the appearances of the name ‘el shaddai in the books of Job and Ruth. These are startling because it is possible that shaddai may be the origin of the name Satan although the two come to mean very different things.

In Job and Ruth, YHWH and SHADDAI appear in what most commentators refer to as parallelisms. Often YHWH or ‘ELOHIM (the plural of ‘EL) is credited with a decision and the SHADDAI acts upon it. Most often, SHADDAI is translated into English as “The Almighty”. Here are some examples:

GENESIS 49:25
Even by the God of your father, who shall help you
And by the Almighty who shall bless you.

JOB 8:3
Does God pervert judgment?
Does the Almighty pervert justice?

RUTH 1:21
I went out full, and YHWH hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing YHWH hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?

You can see in the Ruth quote how YHWH “testified” and SHADDAI “afflicted”. While this is not an absolutely clear situation, it does at least appear that SHADDAI is distinct from YHWH in someway. It is more than likely a vestigial distinction – meaning that by the time the books had been completed, YHWH had appropriated SHADDAI completely, but it does give a tantalizing glimpse into the ancient way of thinking.

There are two possible meanings for the name SHADDAI. It could mean “destroyer” but it could also mean “mountain.” It really depends on whether we’re talking about a southern Semitic  (Moabite) origin or a northern Semitic (Aramean or Syrian) origin. More than likely, it derives from Moabite sources. This would fit with its usage in many places in Job and Ruth. If that is the case, however, the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures would not have missed the connection to “mountains” and probably used it as a double entendre – something that is very, very common in Hebrew.

(There’s also a relatively new interpretation that says SHADDAI might mean “breast” or “fertility”, which would explain passages like the rest of Genesis 49:25. I’ll let you look it up to read it and decide for yourself.)

This is just one of the examples of an area where we really do not know enough about the original context of Hebrew to make a decision, and unfortunately our cultural baggage (and it isn’t often I will refer to monotheism as baggage) has obscured something that might be going on in the text.

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