What is God’s name?
In this week’s Torah portion alone, Abraham encounters God six times, more than anyone else in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. God both speaks to him and appears to him. And Abraham learns—or adopts—three new names for God: Eil Elyon, Adonai, and Eil Shaddai.
Before Abraham appears in the Torah, God is called either Y-H-V-H or Elohim. These names for God are also used in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-Lekha (“Get yourself going”).
And Y-H-V-H said to Abraham: “Get yourself going, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Y-H-V-H (י־ה־ו־ה) = the four-letter name of God (the “tetragrammaton”).
This is God’s most holy and personal name in Judaism. Y-H-V-H may be based on the root verb for being, becoming, and happening, hayah (היה); or it may derive from an ancient pre-Hebrew god name. It is often translated into English as “LORD” in all capitals, although the Hebrew word for “lord” is adon (see Adonai below) and has nothing to do with the tetragrammaton.
The Torah calls God Elohim from the beginning, in Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, and the name resurfaces often, including later in this week’s Torah portion:
And Abraham fell on his face, and Elohim spoke to him. (Genesis 17:3)
elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods.
The first new name for God is introduced when Abraham 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 Malki–Tzedek.1
And Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine. He was a priest to Eil Elyon. And he blessed him; he said: “Blessed is Abraham to Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth”. (Genesis 14:18)
Eil Elyon (אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = highest god, supreme god. Eil (אֵל) = god + elyon (עֶליוֹן) = highest, uppermost.
Then the crasser king of Sodom interrupts with a plan for dividing the spoils of war. In order not to insult the god of Malki-Tzedek, Abraham replies using the same god-language as the king-priest, merely putting his four-letter name for God in front of Malki-Tzedek’s formula.
And Avram said to the king of Sodom: “I vow by Y-H-V-H, Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth, from a thread to a sandal strap, if I take anything that is yours … (Genesis 14:22-23)
Thus Abraham politely indicates that his own personal god is the same as 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 verses requires a lot of synonyms for “God”.
The second new god-name introduced in this week’s Torah portion is an honorific. Abraham is the first person to call God Adonai, “my lord”. He follows this honorific with the four-letter name of God both times that he initiates a conversation with his god.
And Abraham said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, what will you give me, since I go childless, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis/Bereishit 15:2)
And he said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, how will I know that I will take possession of it?” (Genesis/Bereishit 15:8)
Adonai (אֲדֺנָי) = my lords (usually translated as “my lord” when it refers to God). From the singular adon (אֲדוֹן) = lord, master.
The third new god-name in this week’s Torah portion is the most difficult to translate. Eil Shaddai is commonly translated into English as “God Almighty”, based on the Latin Vulgate, but Shaddai means something else in Hebrew.
It was when Abraham was 99 years old that Y-H-V-H appeared to Abraham and said to him: “I am Eil Shaddai. Walk constantly in my presence, and become perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)
Eil Shaddai (אֵל שַׁדַּי) = eil = god + shaddai. Shaddai might mean:
who is enough (prefix she-/שֶׁ = who + dai/דַּי = enough)
of breasts (shadayim/שָׁדַי = breasts)
devastation (shudad/ שֻׁדַּד = devastated)
of the mountain (if the word shaddai is borrowed from Akkadian)
God is called Eil Shaddai 48 times in the Hebrew Bible. Most references to Eil Shaddai or just Shaddai occur in poems,2 which need lots of synonyms 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”.
However, Eil Shaddai does occur nine times in biblical prose passages, including every reference in Genesis. And all nine occurrences 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 have a son with his 89-year-old wife Sarah.3
The five names for God that Abraham uses in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha are still used in Hebrew liturgy today.4 Do Abraham’s three new names for God have any relevance to us? 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, calling God Elyon might remind us that God (at least the God within us) is more important than other things we give top priority 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” or “God of Enough”, 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. Calling God Eil Shaddai might 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.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in October 2010.)
- Malki–Tzedek (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק) = melekh (מֶלֶךְ)=king + tzedek (צֶדֶק)=righteousness, justice. Malki–Tzedek is identified as the king of Shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = wholeness; from the same root as shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace. Judging by the location, he is probably Jebusite ruler of the town that came to be known as Jerusalem.
- The word Shaddai occurs in poems in Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, twice in Bilaam’s prophecies in Numbers/Bemidbar, twice in Psalms, and 31 times in the book of Job.
- 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.
- 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, and I have never found it in the standard liturgy. It seems to be an expression Hagar’s personal relationship to God.
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