Abram has already passed through a covenant ceremony that installed him as the earthly servant of the heavenly sovereign (Genesis 15). Abram and Sarai then tried to establish the family through human means, but ended up oppressing Hagar—as human power tends to do (Genesis 16). Following that diversion, the sovereign resumes the business of establishing his covenant with Abram.
In the ancient near east (ANE), it was common to have a covenant between the ruler (suzerain) and subjects (vassals). God’s covenants in Scripture are like these suzerainty treaties. The nations had covenants with their rulers, never with their gods. When God initiates a covenant, everyone in the ANE understood he was acting in his role as king. The covenant is a legal document defining the kingdom.
An ANE covenant document began by defining the parties to the covenant. The ruler is named first. The covenant people need to know who they serve, and who to call on when they get into trouble. Hagar the Egyptian didn’t know God’s name, so she made one up (16:13). But in establishing the covenant, the sovereign gives his name to Abram:
Genesis 17:1–2 (translation by Wenham, WBC)
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said: “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my presence and be blameless, 2 so that I may make my covenant between me and you, and multiply you exceedingly.”
Shaddai is normally translated “Almighty” but it would be better left untranslated: it’s a proper name. Abram means “exalted father” but we don’t translate it because it’s the guy’s name. Shaddai is God’s personal name. When he says, “I am El Shaddai” he is giving his covenant name to Abram: “I am the God Shaddai.”
So what does the Hebrew word Shaddai (or šadday) mean? No idea. Scholars have tried (unconvincingly) to make connections with several Semitic words: field, mountain, breast, protective spirit, and rescuer. All we know is that God Shaddai is how God introduced himself in the patriarchal covenant. It is the name used by Abram (17:1), Isaac (28:3), and Jacob (35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25).
When God established a new covenant with Abram’s descendants at Sinai, he revealed a new covenant name: YHWH. From that time, they no longer use the name revealed in the Abrahamic covenant: God Shaddai. (Ezekiel 10:5 is the only exception.) They still use Shaddai (without the El) as a name for God, usually in poetry, often parallel with another divine name. This is how God explained to Moses that the new covenant required a new covenant name: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Shaddai, but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3).
Having given his personal name, the sovereign proceeds to outline what he requires of his servant. The command to “walk before me” indicates that Abram is entering public life, that everything he does is open to scrutiny by King Shaddai. Abram must “be blameless” since any flaws in Abram bring dishonour to the sovereign he represents.
When Israel brought sacrifices to God, the animals they provided were to be flawless. The Hebrew word tā·mîm described animals without defect. That’s the word translated “blameless” here: Abram is to be flawless representative, the right image of his sovereign.
Why does the king insist on these stipulations? He is joining himself to Abram. If Abram misrepresents him, the other nations will not know Shaddai’s character and they won’t desire his kingship. Abram’s flaws could undermine the entire project. As the Hebrew people listened to this narrative, they understood that what God Shaddai required of Abram was what he required of them in their generation also.
Abram responds with obeisance—falling face-down before his sovereign (17:3). There was a time when people bowed or knelt before God, but we don’t see that often any more. Have we lost the sense of relating to God as our king?
What others are saying
J. Arthur Thompson, “Covenant (OT),” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 791:
The Near Eastern treaty pattern provided a beautiful metaphor for the relation between God and Israel. More particularly the suzerainty treaty provided a monarchical picture in which God became Israel’s sovereign and Israel became his servant.
Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 23:
The total allegiance to his Lord demanded of Abraham (see Gen. 12:1; 17:1) was precisely that fealty which the treaty stipulations were designed to secure.
H. Niehr and G. Steins. “šadday” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament Volume 14 (Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2004), 426 (quoting Koch, Vetus Testamentum 26 (1976) 309):
The “fruitless results of all these proposed etymological derivations as far as the exegesis of the extant texts is concerned” make it likely that in Israel the divine designation was received as a pure personal name with no knowledge of its “original” (etymological) meaning.
William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Genesis (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 365:
It may be that ’El Shaddai was the only name for God known to the Hebrew patriarchs before the time of Moses. See its use in 28:3; 35:11; 48:3; and especially Exo 6:3.
Read Genesis 17.