Psalm 68: Breasts and Mountains

This cannot be the first time that someone has remarked that mountains resemble breasts and are a symbol of fertility.

In seeking the meaning or connotation for El Shaddai I have come up with no answers but plenty of poetic allusions. Here are the three major connotations of El Shaddai – breasts and by association mountains, and destruction. These do not represent the known etymological roots of the word, but rather euphonic and associative connections.

In Genesis, El Shaddai is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. In Genesis 49:25, Shaddai, – שַׁדַּי the Almighty, is the one who blesses with the blessings of the heavens and the deep and the breasts שָׁדַיִם (the shadayim) and the womb.

Shaddai not only blesses the patriarchs with children but he takes children away from Naomi. Shaddai is the God of Job, who gave him life and children, the God who will not afflict. (Job 37:23.) In Isaiah 13:6 and Joel 1:15, destruction, שֹׁד (shod) comes from שַּׁדַּי Shaddai.

El Shaddai is mentioned only 6 times outside of Genesis and Job. One of these times is in Psalm 68:14.

    When the Almighty scattereth kings
    therein, it snoweth in Zalmon.
    A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan;
    a mountain of peaks is the mountain of Bashan.
    Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks,
    at the mountain which God hath desired for His abode?
    Yea, the LORD will dwell therein for ever.

In Psalm 68, Shaddai can be associated with fertility and the blessing of children and homes in verse 6, with the mountains of the subsequent few verses, and also with the destruction of enemy kings.

It is perhaps best to simply remark that Shaddai is an archaic and poetic name for God. Perhaps it is a name remembered uniquely by the composer of this psalm, whether woman or man, one versed in the ancient poetic traditions. One of the most interesting things that I noticed about this psalm is that so many of God’s names appear in it.

Shaddai represents to me the mixing of traditions, contemporary with ancient, and feminine with masculine. However, I do not find any exclusively female association with the name Shaddai. After all, the promise of the blessings of breast and womb were made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – through their wives, of course. Bearing children was front and centre in the ancient Hebrew culture; it was the immortality that was promised to the patriarchs.

However, Shaddai does not seem to be mainstream by the time of the Psalms, a little counter cultural. This could possibly be explained by supposing that women had retained some of the ancient poetic traditions which had not become part of the temple worship.

I don’t think one can attempt to find the original derivation of the name Shaddai, but as the Almighty He gives the blessing of life and immortality, He dwells in the mountains and has the power of destruction. He is sufficient.

Robert Alter transliterates Shaddai and simply remarks,

    El Shaddai. The first term as in El Elyon, means God. Scholarship has been unable to determine the origins or precise meaning of the second term – tenuous associations have been proposed with a Semitic word meaning “mountain” and with fertility. What is clear (compare Exodus 6:3) is that the biblical writers considered it an archaic name of God. The Five Books of Moses page 81

Reading “Shaddai” rather than “Almighty” reminds of the distance between us and the culture which first knew God.

Other recent posts on the psalms are by Bob and Stefan.

11 Comments

  1. J. K. Gayle
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Here are the three major connotations of El Shaddai – breasts and by association mountains, and destruction. These do not represent the known etymological roots of the word, but rather euphonic and associative connections.

    Does Alter or any other translator carry these different meanings and their connective connotations across in translation?

  2. ElShaddai Edwards
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Suzanne wrote:

    I don’t think one can attempt to find the original derivation of the name Shaddai, but as the Almighty He gives the blessing of life and immortality, He dwells in the mountains and has the power of destruction. He is sufficient.

    It is easy to see how there are massive cultural and linguistic overlays and assumptions to dig through in finding relevant meanings in translating El Shaddai.

    For example, the “mountain” translation tradition is connected to the Akkadian (i.e. Mesopotamian, from whence Abram originally came) word sadu. Evidently “mountain” was a common Semitic word for gods residing on a cosmic mountain that was the center of the earth.

    Abram then travels south and encounters “El”, the father god of the Canaanites. Put El and a local variant of sadu together and you have the Father God of the Mountain.

    A different linguistic path is that “el” is used as a “god of” modifier of whatever attribute followed. So “El Shaddai” would mean “God of Shaddai”, perhaps the local god of the ancient city of Shaddai located on the banks of the Euphrates river in northern Syria, perhaps near Haran, where Abram lived after leaving Ur with his father, Terah.

    Keep in mind that the location of Haran seems to have been named for Abram’s dead little brother (and father of Lot). Perhaps the “God of Shaddai” was adopted by the newcomers when they settled in the area as a peace offering to the locals whose economy they may have disrupted. Abram then “brought” El Shaddai with him to Canaan.

    It’s somewhat ironical then to regard the story of Jacob’s hurried departure from the house of Laban (in Haran) and Rachel’s theft of her father’s household gods… was one of them, El Shaddai?

  3. Peter Kirk
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    the location of Haran seems to have been named for Abram’s dead little brother

    No, ElShaddai (that is, Mr Edwards, not God), the two names are actually quite different in Hebrew (and for that reason are distinguished in TNIV). Abram’s brother’s name is spelled with he, but the city is spelled with het.

  4. ElShaddai Edwards
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Peter, for the clarification. I was using the NRSV and NASB this morning… both use “Haran” for the place and the name – I see now that the TNIV (and NEB/REB) uses “Harran” for the place name.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    ES.

    Its הָרָן and חָרָן so that would be Haran (the brother) and Charan (the place). First one beginning with he and the second beginning with heth in Gen. 11:31

  6. ElShaddai Edwards
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Suzanne, for even more clarification. I wonder why they are translated identically in most English Bibles (and my copy of the Jewish Study Bible)?

  7. Peter Kirk
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    The issue here seems to be with the transliteration of the name of the city of Har(r)an – there is no uncertainty about the personal name.

    The city name appears to be Ḫarrânu in Akkadian, Ḥārān in Hebrew, Χαρραν charran in Greek, Carrhae in Latin, Ḥarrān in Arabic, Harran in modern Turkish, and also Harran in the English of Wikipedia. Only in Hebrew is there a single “r”, and that is because of a late phonetic rule in Hebrew that “r” loses its doubling and the preceding vowel is lengthened in compensation. Thus the spelling “Harran” is definitely preferable, with the extra bonus that it distinguishes the city from the person.

  8. ScriptureZealot
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    and for that reason are distinguished in TNIV

    Peter could you tell me the reference for where this occurs? I may be missing the obvious based on what’s been said but I’m not finding it. Thanks.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Genesis 11:31 in the TNIV.

    “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.”

  10. ScriptureZealot
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. I missed the extra r and in my defense there was a line break in the middle of the Har-ran. That’s my excuse anyway.

  11. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    No problem. It is clear as mud to me, but Peter seems to have a good handle on it.


2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Psalm 68: Breasts and Mountains […]

  2. […] In Genesis, El Shaddai is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. In Genesis 49:25, Shaddai, – שַׁדַּי the Almighty, is the one who blesses with the blessings of the heavens and the deep and the breasts שָׁדַיִם (the shadayim) and the womb. – Suzanne McCarthy […]

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