The True Story behind Lilith

The True Story behind Lilith

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There is a lot of confusion in the world about Lilith; many make the claim that she was originally in the Creation account as Adam’s first wife and was later removed.  The authentic history of Lilith contends this interpretation, and the evidence that supports this conclusion is more concise than popular opinion would suggest.

Once upon a time, there were some Sumerians. These Sumerians believed that there was a she-demon by the name of Lilith who lived in the garden of a Sumerian goddess named Innana. As time passed, many cultures, like the Persians, began to use “lilith” as a more general word, pluralizing it and listing it next to words like “demons” and “devils”. So by that time, at least, it was not unheard of for the word to refer to the general idea of a type of demonic creature.

For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the word ended up working its way into the Bible, in Isaiah 34:14:

And wild animals shall meet with hyenas; the wild goat shall cry to his fellow; indeed, there the night bird settles and finds for herself a resting place.

The word here translated as “night bird” is Lilith. Some have speculated that it was used to describe a “nocturnal animal that inhabits desolate places”, which seems like a reasonable interpretation given the placement of the word in a passage discussing wildlife, with the next verse discussing owls. Still, the interpretation that this refers to demons has thrived over the ages, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the medieval rabbi Rashi arguing that this verse does, in fact, refer to a demon.

However, besides this singular Biblical reference, many mainstream Jewish sources remained silent on the topic until some rather weird commentary from the Talmud (compiled in the 3rd-6th centuries AD):

“Rab Judah citing Samuel ruled: If an abortion had the likeness of Lilith its mother is unclean by reason of the birth, for it is a child but it has wings.” (Nidda 24b)
“R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone [in a lonely house], and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.” (Shabbath 151b)

Now things are a bit more specific. Lilith at this point in the Hebrew worldview is a female demon with long hair and wings. But she is not, you’ll notice, said to be the wife of Adam.

No, the story of her as Adam’s first wife does not show up until a book called the Alphabet of Ben Sira, which was written between the 8th and 11th centuries AD. The story found in this text is a strange one:

“When God created His world and created Adam, He saw that Adam was alone, and He immediately created a woman from earth, like him, for him, and named her Lilith. He brought her to Adam, and they immediately began to fight: Adam said, “You shall lie below” and Lilith said, “You shall lie below for we are equal and both of us were [created] from earth.” They did not listen to each other. When Lilith saw the state of things, she uttered the Holy Name and flew into the air and fled. Adam immediately stood in prayer before God and said: “Master of the universe, see that the woman you gave me has already fled away.” God immediately sent three angels and told them: “Go and fetch Lilith if she agrees to come, bring her, and if she does not, bring her by force.” The three angels went immediately and caught up with her in the [Red] Sea, in the place that the Egyptians were destined to die. They seized her and told her: ‘If you agree to come with us, come, and if not, we shall drown you in the sea.’ She answered: ‘Darlings, I know myself that God created me only to afflict babies with fatal disease when they are eight days old I shall have permission to harm them from their birth to the eighth day and no longer when it is a male baby but when it is a female baby, I shall have permission for twelve days.’ The angels would not leave her alone, until she swore by God’s name that wherever she would see them or their names in an amulet, she would not possess the baby [bearing it]. They then left her immediately. This is [the story of] Lilith who afflicts babies with disease.”

In a nutshell, the story says that Lilith was Adam’s first wife, created at the same time from the dust of the Earth. She wanted to be on top during sex, and Adam wasn’t down with that, presumably because he disagreed with her reasoning that they were equals. She magically flew away and, in the events that followed, took her role as a demon.

Due to the feminist nature of her demand, she has often been used as an icon for such movements, and the story found in the Alphabet of Ben Sira has been elevated by those who did not know any better as evidence that the Biblical Creation account is sexist. Those who make the case that she was an original part of the story point to the apparent differences between the Creation in Genesis 1, coupled with Genesis 2-3 — with the former saying that God created man and woman (Presumably at the same time, although it’s a bit vague) in God’s image — and the latter having Eve made from Adam’s side. They hastily conclude that there must have been two different women, and that the first one must have been Lilith.

Not only does this ignore the possibility of the JEDP theory — in which case these stories would have been written by different authors — it also bypasses an easy solution; that they do not contradict.

Imagine I said that I went to the store and bought bananas and bread.  Now, imagine that I later said I had gone to the store to buy bananas, only to realize how well bread would go with them so I also bought bread.  The result wouldn’t be two contradicting stories, but the same story with differing degrees of specificity.

The fact of the matter is, there is no evidence that the story of Lilith as Adam’s first wife existed prior to the Alphabet of Ben Sira, and the Alphabet of Ben Sira dates more closely to now than it does to the authoring of Genesis. All earlier references to Lilith simply describe it as a general demonic class or a specific demon — but never as anything but that — and never with an origin story that features her as a human in any context.

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