“…The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, I am Almighty God: walk before me and be blameless.”
Why now? And why so late in the game? So much time had gone by. So many things had happened. Why did God wait so long to reveal himself as Almighty God, or in the Hebrew, El Shaddai? And what exactly does this name mean? Amy Grant brought the name into better focus for listeners of contemporary Christian music with the song of the same title, written by Michael Card and John W. Thompson. Even the song’s lyrics don’t really tell us the meaning of El Shaddai. The closest it comes is “Age to age you’re still the same/by the power of the name”. “Power” sounds close to Almighty, but that still doesn’t capture the meaning. So what does it mean? And why, after so much history had elapsed, did God chose this particular occasion to reveal himself by this description?
Let’s first look at the name itself. Shaddai seems to come from shad, the root word for breast, from which nourishment and sufficiency come for growth. It also looks similar to the verb shadad, meaning “to overpower” or “to destroy”. Translators may have favored this rendering in their work, thus God (El) being “Almighty”. Not being a Hebrew scholar, I can’t go much deeper than that. Nor would I want to because I think a final verdict probably is based on scholarly reasons that take us out of the moment of discovery. Either way, whether it’s nourishment and sufficiency or power, the concepts themselves are not too far from each other. The context of history will shed some light on this, as we will see.
By the time we get to Genesis 17, a lot of history has already transpired: the creation of the universe, the 6 days of God’s finishing the earth and creating plants, animals and man, the Sabbath, Adam and Eve’s fall and banishment from the garden, the birth of Cain and Abel, Abel’s death, the birth of Seth and numerous other children, then their descendents over a thousand years, the Great Flood that destroyed everything except what was on the ark, the ‘new normalization’ of earth after the flood, the united rebellion at the city and Tower of Babel, the consequent dispersion of people forced by the miracle of instantly given languages resulting in a work stoppage and the migrations that produced distinct cultures, the migration of Abram’s father Terah from Ur to Haran and then Abram’s move to Canaan after God’s call to him, Abram’s sojourn into Egypt, Lot’s captivity and release after Abram and a small army went after him, the confirmation of God’s covenant with Abram, and finally Abram and Sarah’s attempt to initiate the covenant by following local cultural norms resulting in the birth of and then conflict over Ishmael. A lot of history, a lot of activity, a lot of divine involvement.
From this chronology we can see that God had established a relationship with Abram for a number of years. Abram had no Scriptures that we know of, nothing to read from God, nothing to study or look up. He was completely dependent on God to speak to him, most frequently out of thin air. In chapter 17 Abram is now 99 years old. He’s been following God — as much as anyone can follow someone invisible — for 24 years. And yet only now, after all this time, God reveals himself as El Shaddai. Why?
Here’s why: God had promised a child to Abram 24 years earlier (12:2, 7) and reiterated it (15:4-6). Then we see the folly of Abram, after trusting God and his promise, yielding to Sarai’s suggestion of fulfilling the promise through Hagar. This may have changed her status from handmaid to a potential concubine, and when she conceived and gave birth to Ishmael, well, it was too much. The strife between them wasn’t pretty. So amid this failed, uninspired and ungodly, corner-cutting approach to serve God by one’s own inept ideas, God reveals himself as El Shaddai, the God who is sufficient and powerful enough within himself to create and destroy the world, and to make and keep promises on his terms, not man’s. No doubt wanting to bolster their faith, God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah as a mark not to ever forget that God keeps his covenant his way and with his power, not theirs. He also seals the covenant with the sign of circumcision. Talk about getting personal at the point where the sin of occurred of taking matters into your own hands! Ouch! Abraham even pleaded for God to accept Ishmael as the fulfillment of the covenant. No way. God does what only he can do, and we do better to shut up and watch.
God planned for Isaac, which means laughter, so named because Sarah laughed in unbelief. Will you laugh with joy when El Shaddai brings your “Isaac” to you his way, or will it be the laugh of unbelief?