Friday, March 19, 2010

El Shaddai and the Shack, or, who's afraid of a genderless God?

Yesterday, I attended a local MOPs meeting, and during the meeting we were handed print outs of the names of God. This print out listed one of the names of God, El Shaddai, as God of the mountains.

I have a problem with this. You see, the translation of El Shaddai is being contested among certain scholars, and there are those that argue that Shaddai comes from the word for mountain, and then there are those that argue it comes from the Hebrew word for breast.
(From wikipedia article on El Shaddai)

"Another theory is that Shaddai is a derivation of a Semitic stem that appears in the Akkadian shadû ("mountain") and shaddā`û or shaddû`a ("mountain-dweller"), one of the names of Amurru. This theory was popularized by W. F. Albright but was somewhat weakened when it was noticed that the doubling of the medial d is first documented only in the Neo-Assyrian period. However, the doubling in Hebrew might possibly be secondary. According to this theory, God is seen as inhabiting a mythical holy mountain, a concept not unknown in ancient West Asian mythology (see El), and also evident in the Syriac Christian writings of Ephrem the Syrian, who places Eden on an inaccessible mountaintop.

Albright also proposed that the name Shaddai is connected to shadayim, the Hebrew word for "breasts". It may thus be connected to the notion of God’s gifts of fertility to human race. In several instances in the Torah the name is connected with fruitfulness: "May God Almighty [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers…" (Gen. 28:3). "I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]: be fruitful and increase in number" (Gen. 35:11). "By the Almighty [El Shaddai] who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts [shadayim] and of the womb [racham]" (Gen. 49:25)."

All Sufficient One is the generally accepted translation of El Shaddai- and as far as I'm concerned, mountains do not nearly fulfill this as breasts do.

Mother's milk is all sufficient for an infant, and the promise inherent in the name is exceedingly comforting. God is All sufficient, giving us all we could ever need to grow. How does a mountain provide?

What bothers me most about the mountain translation is that it removes the feminine from God. If God created all things, then he, by inference, created women with breasts that produce milk for their children. If God made humanity in his image, then women, by inference, are a part of his Image. So why can't God choose to express his sufficiency for us in the picture of a breast producing life-giving food?

Peter, in fact, likens the Word of God to mother's milk:

1 Peter 2:1-3

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.

This takes me immediately to the uproar that continues to rage over The Shack, where the character of God is represented by a big black woman. God, as a black woman, tells the main character to call her Papa. Mind you, thiss is in fact a character in a novel, not God himself, but the uproar over God depicting Himself as a woman is huge. I can barely wrap my mind around it, really. The outrage at this God character choosing to be a woman inflames people.


If woman is the other part of God's image in humanity, than why oh why do we feel that this is wrong? This is not to say that God is a woman- I will tell you that God is not a man OR a woman. God is not female or male, but choosing to refer to Himself in masculine pronouns. Super- He is God, after all, and I am not. But let us not forget, lest we become intellectually lazy, what the Jews have always known. God is Spirit, not flesh. God is neither and both genders, all at the same time. God contains both. Once again, I must remind you all, that God chooses to refer to Himself as a Him.

But we must not exclude his motherly attributes in this. He likens himself to a mother hen, at one point. Now astute readers will say likening is not the same as showing up as a big black woman. Ok, sure. But then again, The Shack is not the Bible, and the character of God is but one author's exploration of an idea.

So why do people get so bothered by it? What is it about breast milk that people refuse to allow it near the name of God? What is it about the expression of God as able to contain both genders and be neither that get some scholars so freaked out? I see in The Shack an attempt at expressing God's transcendence of all our boxes of religion- not universality, no. Please do not assume universality. Even in the book itself, the author makes a point of saying that Jesus is the only way to God. But the author does hint at the fact that any road without Jesus, even a "Christian" one, is insufficient and must risen above. It doesn't matter what denomination you are, if you do not have Jesus. That is exclusionary inn the extreme, because you see, it doesn't matter if your belief system is arranged within the family of so-called "christian" ideologies, if you're off by an inch, you're off by a mile.

So what is the big deal that people see in God choosing to show Himself as a woman to one wounded man? Why do scholars deem it necessary to strive for a distant linguistic cousin as an explanation of Shaddai? Why can't God choose to say he is All Sufficient by using a picture of breast milk?

What are they afraid of?

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