By the Rev. Thomas Laurie, D. D. Providence, R. I.
When Abraham was ninety and nine years old, the Lord appeared unto him, and said, I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect. Gen. 17:1; compare 28:3; 35:11; 43:14:48:3; 49:25. The Hebrew reads, “I am El Shaddai” and in our English versions is rendered as above; the new version here feeing precisely the same as King James’ translation. Gesenius makes Shaddai a pluralis excellentiae from Shad, mighty, powerful; but the latter word is not found in his lexicon at all, though a word of the same form is rendered violence, oppression, also, desolation, destruction. He also derives Shaddai from the root Shadad, which he translates to practise violence, to oppress, to destroy, to lay waste, to desolate. If this is the correct derivation of El Shaddai, then it does not mean the omnipotent God, but the destroying or desolating God, which is hardly a true description of Him who is Love.
We may take it for granted that the Hebrew can furnish no better derivation for the word; for, if it could, no doubt Gesenius would have discovered it. Let us then turn to the Assyrian, and see if we can obtain any help from that source. In that language Shadu means mountains, and Shaddai would be the regular adjective form; as, Gimirraa or Gimirrai from Gimiru (Gomer), or Mutsrai from Mutsur (Egypt), Heb. Mitsraim; and if it is objected that Shaddai has the d reduplicated, while Shadu has not, it may be replied, that, in “The Inscriptions of Western Asia,” 3:14, 42, we find Shaddai Martsu, instead of the more common Shadu Martsu (a rugged mountain). This derivation is one proposed by Professor Friedrich Delitzsch, and Professor A. H. Sayce says of it:1 “It is possible that Professor Friedrich Delitzsch is right in proposing to see in Assyrian Shadu the explanation of the Hebrew title of the Deity, El Shaddai. At all events, God is compared to a rock in the Old Testament (Ps. 18:2).” It is proper to add, however, that some Assyriologists doubt the correctness of this derivation.
But supposing it the correct one,—and as yet we have none better,— then the meaning would be, the God possessed of the characteristics of a mountain. And that the Assyrians associated the idea of a mountain with their great God, is manifest from the fact that Asshur, the head of the Assyrian Pantheon, is called Shadu rabu (a great mountain).2
The question arises, How did the idea of God become associated in the minds of the Assyrians with a mountain?
To understand this we must bear in mind that at first men did not possess the written word, to which we are indebted for our most precious views of God. Abraham, for example, had no part of Holy Scripture as it is now in our hands, unless, indeed, it might be some of the ancient traditions which Moses may have employed in composing his writings.
But feeling in their hearts that God was great, they could find no better illustration of that greatness than the great mountain which before their eyes towered up in massive greatness to the heavens. The idea of greatness found no more fitting representation in their thought than the mountains. Hence “great” was the adjective that suggested itself most naturally when speaking of them. See Ps. 36:6; Dan. 2:35. Almost the same things might be said of the high mountains. See Deut. 12:2; Isa. 2:14; Ezek. 34:14. In this connection the utterance of the prophet (Isa. 57:15) is very striking: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” Hence in their minds the great God was best described as El Shaddai.
Again, in their hearts they felt that God was all-powerful, and how could they better express this attribute of God than by picturing him as the being “who by his strength setteth fast the mountains, being girded with power” (Ps. 65:6)? or “who overturneth the mountains by the roots “(Job 28:9)? or “who weighed the mountains in scales “(Isa. 40:12; compare Amos 4:13; Nah. 1:5; Hab. 3:10)? Certainly we have here a much better and more natural derivation of the idea of all-powerful, than to obtain it from the term denoting violence and oppression.
So those ancient saints felt that God endured, while man passed away; as it is beautifully expressed in Heb. 1:11, 12, “They shall perish, but thou continuest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; … but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail,” and how grandly this attribute is set forth by the aid of the mountains when the prophet chants (Hab. 3:6), “He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations: and the eternal mountains were scattered, the everlasting hills did bow: (but) his goings were as of old!”
So also in ancient times of violence and wrong, God was felt to be the refuge of his people, and here also the mountains readily lent themselves to set forth this most precious view of God. Not only are a number of mountains represented as enclosing the dwelling, the abode of his saints in their secure protection (Ps. 125:2), but in Isa. 2:2, the mountain of the Lord’s house is established in that safest, because most inaccessible, place, the top of the mountains, and while the Psalmist turns to his enemies, saying (Ps. 11:1), “In the Lord put I my trust: How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain (refuge)?” to God himself he says (Ps. 30:7), “Thou Lord of thy power hast made my mountain (refuge) to stand strong.”
It is a delightful confirmation of this derivation of the term El Shaddai, that, even though the idea of righteousness is not directly suggested by the mountains, yet when the good man is cast down by the sight of abounding wickedness, and human appearances of goodness that turn out to be only appearances, he turns to God, saying (Ps. 36:6), “Thy righteousness is like the great mountain,”—vast, solid, and enduring through the ages.
It may be objected to all this, that worship on the mountains, and burning incense on the high places, are practices severely condemned in the Old Testament. Yes; when men “became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things,” God reproached them for their folly, and sought to obliterate all traces of it from the land which he had set apart for himself. But the very fact that mountains were man’s first temples, shows how intimately associated they were with the idea of God. It was on a mountain that God gave the law to Israel. It was on a mountain top that the temple was erected and vast substructures were built up to furnish a foundation broad enough for the structure; and, though the time is coming when neither in Mount Gerizim nor yet at Jerusalem shall men worship the Father, yet that does not forbid that, at the first, El Shaddai meant just as is here represented.
1) Hibbard Lectures, p. 407.
2) The Inscriptions of Western Asia, 5:8, 5 and Smith’s History of Sennacherib, 2:4.