'El-Shaddai'. God, all sufficient. The name, by which God refers to himself in talking to Abraham in Genesis 17, is an old name. After the time of Moses 'Jehovah' is far more frequently used for the name of God. The 'El' part of the name signifies 'God', such as in the names of Elijah, and Elisha, meaning 'The Lord is my God', and 'God is Saviour' respectively. The 'Shaddai' is often mis-translated to mean 'Almighty'. In fact the word 'Shaddai' derives from the Hebrew word for 'breast', 'shad'. This gives a literal meaning of 'the breasted one'. The image of God it presents is one of nourisher, giving strength to those who seek Him, and comforter, as the baby in arms is comforted and rested whilst in contact with the breast, as well as fed.
It was in this form that God appeared to Abram. His promise was to be 'El Shaddai’ to Abram and his descendents, God, Nourisher and Comforter. In return for this he invites Abram to walk before him, to be 'blameless', or as the King James Version puts it 'to be perfect'. What an impossible challenge! Perhaps a less daunting translation here might be 'to be sincere'. Our relationship with God then is based on acceptance of his provision for us, his nourishment and comfort, and a commitment to walk before Him, in His way with sincerity and integrity.
In his letter to the Romans Paul takes pains to point out that the covenant between God and Abraham, and through Abraham between God and all believers, was made before the establishment of the Law. It was through Abraham's faith in God, being prepared to walk before Him in sincerity, that Sarah was to have her son Isaac. Through faith, although there seemed to be no possibility of Sarah conceiving, new life was granted. Through faith, acceptance of Gods nourishment, and willingness to serve him in sincerity, Abraham became the spiritual father to all, Christian, Muslim and Jew alike.
At that time it must have been an enormous step for Jewish people to decide to become Christian. Since the time of Moses, the great volumes of laws were the scaffolding upon which their religion was upheld. Yet here was Paul saying it was enough just to have faith. He goes on to say that in fact the laws themselves caused problems because only if there is a law can you be punished for breaking it. Having faith, though, is not simply believing that God exists. The faith of Abraham was that if he walked sincerely, following the values of the God in which he believed, then God would provide nourishment, comfort, in short for all his needs. This was a faith that was 'convinced that God had power to do what He promised.' (Romans 4.20)
The danger of a religion based on Law is that in a sense it encourages bargaining with God. Our fate and fortune, not solely dependent on God's grace as we believe it to be, is linked with our own fulfilment of the requirements of the law. The law then becomes central to the action of religious life, leading to those situations where Jesus was criticised for healing on the Sabbath, or allowing the disciples to gather food. In fulfilling the law an individual is looking after himself. 'If I do this, if I live according to the law I will be all right. It will be my right to be looked after by God because of my own actions in keeping with the law. In fact the Law had become so complex that it could be used to justify actions that seem obviously wrong to us. Mark's gospel reports Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees for finding legal loopholes that allowed them to neglect their parents, in opposition to one of the Ten Commandments. In this way the law was acting against the interests of a good relationship between God and His people. I sometimes wonder if, in our own way, insisting on the correct way to conduct services, the right music, the correct liturgy, the definitive translation of scriptural texts, we may be beginning to tie ourselves into the same sort of knots as the Pharisees. We lose sight of our commission to love one another as Christ loves us, allowing ritual and rite to take centre stage, losing sight of our own personal need for God's grace.
It was with this in mind that Jesus calls us to renounce ourselves. To save your own life meant following the law for selfish reasons. Your life is the important element which becomes the reason for following the rules. But in getting entangled in that way of thinking we are in danger of losing the personal and sincere relationship with God, cutting ourselves off from His nourishment, His comfort and so losing our life. By renouncing self and following Jesus, accepting that all we need, (if not perhaps all we want!) is provided for, our nourishment and comfort, by grace, we learn to walk in sincerity, following Jesus' example and maintaining that relationship with God, El-Shaddai the all-sufficient, that will lead to eternal life with Him.