Lekh Lekha: Names for God

April 12, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on October 11, 2010.)

And Malki-Tzedek (Righteous-King), the king of Shaleim (Wholeness), brought out bread and wine.  He was a priest to Eil Elyon.  And he blessed him; he said: Blessed is Avram (Abraham) to Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth …  And Avram said to the king of Sodom: I vow by Y-H-V-H, Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth …  (Genesis/Bereishit 14:18-22)

Eil Elyon = highest god, upper god, supreme god

And Avram said: My lords, Y-H-V-H, what will you give me, when I go childless, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?  (Genesis/Bereishit 15:2)

And he said: My lords, Y-H-V-H, how will I know that I will take possession of it?  (Genesis/Bereishit 15:8)

Adonai = my lords (usually translated as “my Lord” when it refers to God)

It was when Avram was 99 years old, that Y-H-V-H appeared to Avram and said to him: I am Eil Shaddai.  Walk constantly in my presence, and become perfect.  (Genesis/Bereishit 17:1)

Eil Shaddai = An eil is a god.  Shaddai might mean:

— who is enough (she = who, dai = enough)

— of breasts (shadayim = breasts)

— of devastation (shadad = devastate)

— of the mountain (if the word is not Hebrew, but Akkadian)

(Eil Shaddai is commonly mistranslated as “God Almighty”, from the Latin Vulgate.)

This week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (Go for yourself) introduces three (or maybe four—see the footnote) new names for God.  The Torah usually refers to God as either Elohim (which literally means “gods”) or the sacred four-letter name (which corresponds to the Roman letters y, h, v, and h).  So far in this series of blogs, I have translated three different words (Elohim, the four-letter name, and Eil) as “God”.  But it’s striking that this week’s Torah portion introduces both a new major character, Abraham, and three new ways to address God: as Eil Elyon, as Adonai, and as Eil Shaddai.

Abraham has more conversations with God than anyone else in the book of Genesis.  God both speaks to him and appears to him.  In Abraham’s first Torah portion alone, he encounters God six times.  And it’s clear to Abraham that his god is different from any of the gods in the pantheons of Aram and Canaan.  The first two times he calls God by name, it’s the four-letter name, which is God’s most holy and personal name, based on the verb “to be”.

Then he runs into a delicate political situation.  After Abraham and his allies have won a war, the local kings meet in the valley of the king-priest MelkiTzedek.  Melki-tzedek graciously brings bread and wine to Abraham, and blesses him in the name of his own god, Eil Elyon.  Then the crasser king of Sodom interrupts with a plan for dividing the spoils of war.  In order not to insult the god of Melki-tzedek, Abraham replies using the same god-language as the priest, merely putting his four-letter name for God in front of Melki-Tzedek’s formula.  Thus Abraham indicates that his own personal god is also Melki-Tzedek’s Highest God, the owner of heaven and earth.

This is the only chapter in the Torah in which God is called Eil Elyon.  But the word Elyon, “highest”, is used again 21 times in the Hebrew bible.  Most of these uses occur in poems, where the parallel structure of the verses requires a lot of synonyms for “God”.

At Abraham’s fourth personal encounter with God, he starts talking back to his deity.  In this week’s Torah portion, he speaks to God twice, both times beginning with Adonai, Y-H-V-H, and then asking God a polite question.  He is the first person to call God Adonai, “My lords”.  I suspect that opening the question with “My lords” is Abraham’s way of indicating that he will continue to be God’s servant and obey God no matter what; he merely would appreciate some information, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.  But why does Abraham use the plural?  R.S. Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, wrote that Abraham is not sub-servient to any human lords; God is his only master, which is the same as saying God is all his masters.

The third god-name introduced in this week’s Torah portion is both the most popular (with 48 occurrences in the Hebrew scripture) and the most difficult to translate.  Traditional commentary views Shaddai as being a compound of a prefix for “who” and the word dai, “enough”.  But modern scholarship discredits this view.  Out of the remaining possibilities, I favor “God of Breasts”.  Here’s why:

Most references to Eil Shaddai or just Shaddai occur in poems (Bilaam’s prophecies, Psalms, the book of Job), which need lots of synonyms for God.  The book of Job is written to seem like an older work, so it especially favors old-fashioned names for God.  The two uses of Shaddai in the book of Ezekiel are onomatopoeic; Ezekiel describes the sound of wings in his vision as being “like the sound of Shaddai”.

That leaves nine non-poetic references, including every reference in Genesis.  And all nine have something to do with fertility.  In this week’s Torah portion, when God first reveals the name Eil Shaddai to Abraham, God goes on to say 1) that Abraham will be very fruitful, with nations of descendants; 2) that he and all the males in his household must be circumcised, and 3) that he will even have a son with his 89-year-old wife Sarah.

In the next occurrence, Isaac asks Eil Shaddai to bless Jacob by making him “fruitful and numerous” and “an assembly of peoples”.  When God renames Jacob “Israel”, God adds, “I am Eil Shaddai; be fruitful and numerous; a nation and an assembly of nations…”  Jacob himself uses the name Shaddai three times, once to recall the above blessing, once to plead for the safe return of two of his sons from Egypt, and once to shower blessings on the tribe of Joseph, including “blessings of breasts and womb”.

In Exodus, God tells Moses “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with Eil Shaddai”, but then uses a different name with Moses—whose personal fertility is not an issue.  In the book of Ruth, Naomi refers to Shaddai twice, complaining that this god harmed her and made her bitter by bereaving her of her husband and two sons, and leaving her with no grandchildren.  Eil Shaddai, the god of breasts, can withhold fertility as well as grant it.

So what do we do with these three new names for God?  The name Eil Elyon, “Highest God”, is about God’s relationship to other gods.  But by the time of Deuteronomy, the Torah is monotheistic, and uses only Elyon, “Highest”, as an adjective for the one God.  Today, we can use the name Elyon to remind ourselves that God (at least the God within us) is more important than anything else we tend to elevate into the top position in our lives.

The name Adonai, “My Lords”, can remind us that we are not as autonomous as we might think.  We are not the masters of the universe.  We are not even masters of our own souls; we do what we can, but we are all dependent on the grace of God.  Calling God Adonai might remind us to be humble.

The name Eil Shaddai, “God of Breasts”, is about God as the source of fertility and nurture.  We are creative creatures; we not only bear offspring, like other animals, but we generate inventions, art, ideas, religions, even Torah monologues …  Calling God  Eil Shaddai can remind us to be grateful for all those inspirations that come “out of the blue”, and grateful for our abilities to nurture both ideas and fellow human beings.

(Footnote: This week’s Torah portion also includes what might be considered a fourth new name of God.  Hagar, who is Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s servant, runs away, then hears angels of God giving her advice and prophecy.  She says, “You are a seeing god!”  But this particular formation, eil ro-iy, is never used again in the Torah, so it seems to be merely Hagar’s personal expression.)


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