Who is Lilith?

In my post titled: What is the Origin of Demons? I discussed various theories concerning their origins, and referenced one theory that argued they are a rival race to humanity, born to a demon named Lilith. Specifically, that Lilith was a supposed wife to Adam, before Eve, and rejected both Adam and God to become a demon, who in turn spawned her own demonic race in opposition to humanity. As I stated at the time, there is no real biblical support for this story at all. Rather, it is a legend popularized in Jewish folklore. That said, it is still a fascinating legend, so I thought I might post on it. Therefore in this post I will pose the question: Who is Lilith?

The answer is complicated. Therefore I will provide some background on the Legend of Lilith, followed by the sole (and disputed) biblical reference to her, and the midrash that proceeded to link her to Adam due to a misreading of Genesis, then conclude with how the legend has been recast in modern times. After this I will provide a brief summary, some concluding thoughts and answer the question of this post. Perhaps some may find this post interesting.


Lilith Background

All the world knows the story of Adam & Eve found in Genesis, but few today know the story of Lilith, the mysterious, and alleged, “first wife” of Adam. Two non-biblical texts tell her story in detail. The Alphabet of Ben Sira written in the 11th century A.D., and the Zohar (a.k.a. The Book of Splendor) also written in the middle ages (13th century). Though both are from medieval times, they rest on traditions that go back to antiquity.

According to these traditions and Jewish folklore, Lilith was the first wife of Adam, created before Eve. So in the beginning, it was not just Adam created from the dust of the ground, but Adam & Lilith, co-created from the same ground, the same dust, at the same time. However, Lilith would reject both Adam and God. In these medieval texts, she is also said to have pronounced the Divine Name, 4 letters in Hebrew that spell the name of God, which are never to be pronounced vocally. How she came to know this name is not clear, it is deduced a fallen angel (likely Satan) told her, promising her great knowledge and power in return. Regardless of how she came to know this name, when she pronounces it she is given such great power that she flew away, leaving Adam alone. According to Ben Sira, three angels are then dispatched to bring Lilith back to Adam, but to no avail.

With Lilith gone, these alternative medieval texts have God presenting Adam with a second wife, Eve, created from his rib. Lilith, cast out of the Garden, is now a demon who will take revenge on the descendants of Adam & Eve. She would afflict the descendants of Eve during pregnancy, take newborns from their crib and even seduce men while they slept alone to spawn her own demonic race. Thus, she became the “Mother of Demons”.  It is this image of Lilith as a demon that give a clue to the origin of these texts. Lilith herself appears to be a monster that dates back to pre-historic times. Interestingly she is illustrated in most ancient cultures. Ancient carvings and sculptures in Egypt, Greece, Babylonia and Sumeria are all believed to portray her. These sculptures and carvings portray a woman with wings flanked by bird owls. She was often called Lilitu, and associated with night demons or creatures of the night. In Hebrew, her name is Lilith, from the Hebrew root word “Lili”, which means “night”. The name Lilith in Hebrew means “night creature”.

Lilith in The Bible

Lilith is mentioned in the Bible (and only in a select few translations) only once:

“There too Lilith shall repose and find a place to rest. There shall the owl nest and lay and batch and brood in its shadow.” (Isaiah 34:14) NRSV

That is the sole mention of Lilith in the Bible. She is part of a list of nefarious creatures that reside in the wasteland of the city Edom, all of whom are the type of creatures you would not want Godly people to associate with. If this demon had a backstory, it was lost. But how did Lilith get from Isaiah into the center of the story of Adam & Eve?

Lilith in Jewish Midrash

The answer is an ancient Jewish tradition called Midrash. When rabbis came across unnamed characters in the Bible, they would always try to tie them to something else in the Bible. Why? Because ancient rabbis did not believe God would just drop people into the scriptures without saying anything more about them. So they would pour over the sacred text looking for clues to fill in the gaps of these unnamed characters. The filling in of these apparent gaps is done through a process called “midrash”, which in Hebrew means to root out and investigate. In the case of Lilith, it was two seemingly different accounts of the creation of woman that led to the belief (by some) that there was a “prior unnamed wife” of Adam, and a gap in the Creation story. However, most Jewish and Christian theologians today do not see two accounts in Genesis, but instead a macro and micro account of the same story, i.e. Genesis 1 tells us that God made Man (male/female), and Genesis 2 tells us how God made Man (Adam from the earth & Eve from Adams’s rib). Nonetheless, it was these two seemingly different accounts of the creation of woman that led some ancient Rabbinical Scholars to believe Adam had a prior wife, and expand the story of this “first unnamed wife” through Midrash.

The first account in Genesis 1 states “So God created man in his own image, male and female he created them”. The next account in Genesis 2 states “God caused man to fall into a deep sleep and while sleeping he took his rib. The Lord God then made woman”.  As previously indicated, Rabbinic tradition saw this first account as the creation of a different woman other than Eve. They argue Genesis 1 suggests man & woman were both created at the same time; while Genesis 2 clearly says man was created first, and then woman. Therefore, they concluded the woman in Genesis 1 must have been a different woman than Eve, thus belief in a “first wife” of Adam took root. Sometime in antiquity Rabbinical Scholars sought to reconcile these two accounts and fill in the gap. They wanted to know just who this first unnamed woman was, and eventually linked her with the female demon Lilith mentioned in Isaiah, and created a Midrash tradition that connected the two. It was Lilith they wrote, who rejected both Adam and God’s will to become this demon creature of the night. It is this Jewish Midrash tradition concerning Lilith that both Ben Sira, and the Zohar, would draw upon and expand on in their fanciful stories written in the middle-ages.

Lilith in Modern Times

Lilith folk tales continued popping up throughout Europe as a testament to the Lilith Legend’s staying power. Germany’s Johann Goethe (1749–1832) refers to Lilith in his poem Faust, and the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) in his work imaginatively describes a pact between Lilith and the Bible’s serpent (Satan). As stated in a previous post, Satan is the Serpent that tempts Adam and Eve to sin by taking the forbidden fruit, leading to the Fall of Man. However, in Rossetti’s poem, it is a scheming and spiteful Lilith who convinces her former lover, Satan, to loan her a reptilian shape. Disguised as a snake, Lilith then returns to Eden, convinces Eve and Adam to sin, and causes God great sorrow. Rossetti maintains in his poem that Lilith was no longer human, but nevertheless still had the form of a beautiful woman, as can be seen in his painting entitled “Lady Lilith”. Meanwhile, the English Victorian poet Robert Browning (1812–1889) wrote a story titled “Adam, Lilith and Eve,” which portrayed the she-demon in a more favorable light. Starting in the late 20th century, many self-proclaimed feminist groups, following Browning’s example, have recast the image of Lilith as a “hero” for her rejection of Adam (Man) in favor of “independence”. However, such modern notions are absurd given the historical context of the legends that surround her, i.e. an evil murderer of women (expecting mothers), not to mention babies (both born and unborn). Not exactly a great symbol for Women’s Rights.

Lilith Legend in Summary

The tradition of Lilith through the centuries is that of an evil creature and seductress of the night. It was said she could kill a child in the womb or cradle, and a mother during childbirth. She was regarded by some as “The Mother of Demons”. In modern times some have tried to recast her as a “feminist hero,” however, such notions display an ignorance to the history of this subject matter. To that point, throughout history Lilith was feared, especially in orthodox and kabalistic circles, where amulets were worn to protect against her. But her story, that of an evil and powerful woman, first married to Adam, is nowhere to be found in either the Jewish or Christian canon of the Bible. A fascinating legend to be sure, but nothing more.


But enough already, it is time to wrap this up and answer the question posed in the title and introduction of this post: Who is Lilith? Lilith, if she existed at all, and I emphasize the word, “IF”, was nothing more than a demon as referenced in the disputed translation of Isaiah 34:14. Which in my view, simply makes her nothing more than one of many fallen angels, and NOT the “Mother of Demons”. Moreover, as indicated earlier, there is absolutely NO scriptural evidence, AT ALL, to support the notion that Adam had a wife (or that God created another woman) prior to Eve. This assumption was born out of a misreading of Genesis, a reading virtually no modern Jewish or Christian theologian accepts today. Nevertheless, it is still a fascinating legend, but should not be viewed as anything more than that.

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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