The Shalom of El Shaddai

Shalom! Psalm 34 says to us “Bekhesh shalom v’radphehu” – seek shalom and pursue it. Shalom means variously peace, happiness, prosperity, health, wellness, safety, welfare, and recovery – in short, wholeness. Jesus based most of what he taught about the nature of God on Jewish scripture, in which shalom is the overwhelming characteristic of God.

Contrast this with El Shaddai – God Almighty. The word translated into English as “almighty” or “all-powerful” assumes, incorrectly, that Shaddai is based on the word shadad, which means “destroyer”. Shaddai, however, actually derives from the word shad, which means breast.  El Shaddai, therefore, means “God with breasts.” Rabbis generally translate this as “God who is enough.”  If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to delve briefly into why “God with breasts” could mean “God who is enough.” There are multiple references in scripture to God’s breast or bosom. And I’d like to explore the relationship between “breasts” and the Rabbinic concept of “enough.”

Following birth God endowed all creatures with the ability to care for their young. In mammals, which of course include humans, the most common source of nutrition and comfort is the breast. The milk of the breast, when the mother is able to breastfeed, is adequate to provide the nutrition needed for a baby to survive. If the mother is undernourished, the mother’s body will extract from her own tissues the nutrients necessary for her child. Her own health will, to some extent, be sacrificed for the health of her infant.

And when it comes to comforting and nurturing, the bosom is the standard used by virtually all cultures. In Hebrew scripture, when God’s breast or bosom is used metaphorically, the children of Israel were in need of comfort and sustenance.

Hence, the rabbis translate “God with breasts” as “God who is enough” – the God who will comfort her children; the God who will deplete even her own body for her children. In this instance the appropriate image is God as Mother. God is not always Father.

When I talk about God as Mother, while rabbis would not be overly perplexed, a common reaction from Christians is that it is wrong – threatening to tradition – blasphemous – even cultish. It was, however, cults of Jewish and Christian thought that prompted describing God in more absolute terms – omniscient, omnipotent, immutable and male. It was not early Christian worship that came up with these notions, rather they became mainstream in later Christianity.

This picture of God may be great for when you are on top of things, when you’re strong, when you’re winning, when you’re claiming God to be on your side. In situations like that you want your God to be totemic – to be bigger than their God. Why, especially in a healing service, am I talking about this?

Because it is precisely in times of extreme difficulty that our long-standing notions of an all-powerful God can become the most damaging to our, or other people’s, faith. When people are oppressed, feeling trapped, suffering loss, emotionally distraught, what have become traditional descriptions of God put them in a spiritual bind.

Let’s unpack omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and immutable and see why. We’ll leave male to another time.

Omniscient means all-knowing – past, present and future. But rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity never made a claim to God knowing the future. “God knows all that is and has been” is a classic statement of faith. It did not include, “all that will be”.

Omnipotent means that God ultimately has power over everything – even the future. Hebrew theology believed God was active in history, as did the early Christians. And it was common for Jews to pray for God’s intervention in the present. Biblically, however,  not much is said about God controlling of the future.

Immutable means that God is not changed by anything – good, bad or indifferent. God is static – unchangeable. This is perhaps the one with the least Biblical grounding. You can proof-text the others – find little snippets of scripture here or there that might address them obliquely, but this one is difficult even to justify that way.

Put all together, these characteristics give us problematic theologies for times of difficulty. God could have prevented some bad thing from happening, but didn’t. Even worse, this bad thing could have happened because it furthered God’s plan.  This leaves sufferers many times asking “why would God let this happen?” or “how could this suffering fit into God’s plan?” What this translates to is “how can I trust and find comfort in a God who does this to me or us?”

Ultimately these traditions don’t line up with scripture, especially with what Jesus taught, and they can make life hell during times of extreme difficulty.

I would like to propose a return to the more classic Hebrew and early Christian understandings of God – one that requires moving away from what we have come to understand as tradition. I would like you to consider giving yourself, or someone you are caring for, permission to visualize God as loving, caring, supporting and nurturing. That shouldn’t be too difficult, right? But it means casting aside those traits that tradition has told us to hold onto.

Consider this: God knows all that has been and all that is. God can anticipate the future based on what has happened in the past, but does not predetermine what will happen. And God cannot use power that foresight does not produce. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to wonder about when the Kingdom is coming, it would already be here. We would have no role in the Kingdom coming, which would make the bulk of Jesus’ preaching superfluous and irrelevant. I am not inclined to believe that’s the case.

So God’s plan is based on hope and faith, just as ours is. I think that’s the image of God that we are all made in, we have the capacity to hope and have faith – we can anticipate a future, but not control it.

God is also affected by suffering. A vast number of scripture passages refer to God’s compassion, love, concern and activity as a result of sorrowful events. Just as Jesus, God incarnate, wept with Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus, God weeps with us. Since God is affected by human events, God is touched by our grief, our sickness, our sadness and God reaches out to us in these times to offer hope and comfort. God wishes for all shalom – wholeness. This is the image of a God who is changed by human experience.

God also calls others to act as God’s agents in loving and caring for those who are suffering. God doesn’t use ultimate power to move us like chess pieces – God calls us and tries to persuade us to act in love and righteousness. God imaged this way tells us that our pain and suffering doesn’t occur because of God, but that God feels our pain and anguish with us, touches us in love and compassion, and calls on others to care for us.

This “God who is enough” feeds us with shalom from God’s own person, and holds us close to her bosom so we can feel God’s love. As for me, that’s the God I hear about in the words of Jesus. Bekhesh shalom v’radphehu – seek shalom and pursue it.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

Readers since Jan 2009

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