Monday, October 20, 2008

The Myth of Lilith

Lilith is not mentioned in Genesis. It would be speculating well beyond the biblical evidence to say that Lilith was Adam's first wife. However, early Hebrew rulers did have two wives. The theological problem arises when evil Lilith is posed as Adam's first wife, which according to the Hebrew marriage pattern, would mean she was Adam's half-sister. Did God create an evil wife? The Talmud suggests this. But the Lilith story is based, not on the canonical texts, but on the much later Babylonian myth.

Alice C. Linsley

Did Adam have a wife before Eve? According to Ben Sira he did, and her name was Lilith. There is only one reference to Lilith in the entire Bible. Isaiah 34:14 reads "there too Lilith shall repose." The translation is disputed. Following the King James Version, many Bibles render the passage "there too the night creature" or "the screech owl also shall rest there". Compare these:

Romanized Hebrew: pagšu ṣiyyim et-ʾiyyim w-saʿir ʿal-rēʿhu yiqra ʾakšam hirgiʿah lilit u-maṣʾah lah manoḫ ("yelpers meet-[perfect] howlers; hairy-ones cry-[imperfect] to fellow. liyliyth reposes-[perfect], acquires-[perfect] resting-place." )
Lilith flanked by owls

King James: "The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest."

Regardless of the differences, the context is clear in both texts that those mentioned are under Yahweh's judgment.

Lilith (Hebrew לילית) is a Mesopotamian mythological figure. It is not likely that she was known to Abraham's African ancestors from whom we receive the story of the first Father and Mother in the Garden. Lilith belongs to the pantheon that Daniel and his Judahites companions refused to worship in Babylon. She was associated with wind and storms and was thought to bring disease and death, especially to women and infants. The figure of Lilith first appeared in a class of Sumerian storm spirits as Lilitu around 4000 BC.

According to the myth of Lilith, she left Adam because he insisted that she submit to him. She spoke the Divine Name and gained such power that she became an angel, but when God told her to return to Adam, she refused and became a demon. She is cast as the epitome of the evil seductress who works in league with Satan to torment and destroy Adam's offspring.

Here is the passage from a 6th century A.D. midrash The Alphabet of Ben Sira:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone'. He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: 'Sovereign of the universe!' he said, 'the woman you gave me has run away.' At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.

"Said the Holy One to Adam, 'If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.' The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God's word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, 'We shall drown you in the sea.'

"'Leave me!' she said. 'I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.'

"When the angels heard Lilith's words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: 'Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.' She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers."

Lilith's existence as an historical person depends on a reading of Genesis 1 apart from Genesis 2. The woman created as Adam's equal in Genesis 1 is said to be Lilith and the woman created subservient (from Adam's rib) in Genesis 2 is said to be Eve. There are two immediately obvious problems with this interpretation. First, Lilith can hardly be an historical woman if Adam is not an historical person. Both Adam and Lilith belong to the realm of myth and a mythical Adam is as necessary as his historical counterpart Enoch. The Adam of rabbinic writings is more often mythical than historical. He may be considered the Form of Man, in the Platonic sense.

Second, Ben Sira and other rabbis were aware that the great chiefs listed in Genesis had two wives. They are constructing the Lilith myth on this culture trait, but culture traits only apply to historical persons living in real time. Lilith is not mentioned in Genesis because insinuating her presence overthrows the biblical picture of Adam and Eve living close to the Creator in Paradise. This paradise was lost due to disobedience of God's command given to them 'not to eat', not because Lilith refused to take the "missionary position" with Adam.

The Lilith myth reveals more about the 6th-century rabbis' attitude toward women than it does about God and creation.

(This article appeared in Yareah Magazine.)

Related reading: Adam and Eve: The Blood and the Birther; Adam Was A Red Man; The Historical Adam; The Lamech Segment Analysis; The Wisdom of Ben Sira

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