Having said I was going to blog about obscure stories in the Bible, my first week I wrote about the Creation -- not exactly unknown here -- and this week I’m writing about a character who isn't even in the Bible. Well, not technically.
Although Lilith is never exactly named in the Bible, she does have an association with Adam. She‘s part of the pop theology which has accumulated around Creation these past few millenia. Some people think she was in the Bible, and some others think she should have been.
The name Lilith is thought to derive from Lilitu, a type of female spirit or demon from Babylonian and Assyrian mythology associated with the night wind. An ancient Mesopotamian tablet depicting a nude goddess with bird’s feet and wings has been thought by some to represent Lilitu, although other scholars identify her with Ishtar or other goddesses of the region. There’s also an incident in the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the hero rids a goddess’s huluppu tree of a snake, a zu bird and another garden pest which some translators have identified as a Lilith.
It seems likely that Lilith entered Hebrew folklore during the Babylonian Captivity, where she was seen as a demonic spirit who preyed on women and young children. She was frequently portrayed as a beautiful woman, sexually preying on men as they slept giving them wet dreams and enticing them to grow hair on their palms. I made up the last part.
The only place in the Bible that comes close to mentioning Lilith is a passage in Isaiah describing the destruction of Edom. It describes the land becoming a desolate place, inhabited by unclean beasts and supernatural terrors. This is how a modern Jewish translation puts it:
“Wildcats shall meet hyenas, / Goat-demons shall greet each other; / There too the lilith shall repose / And find herself a resting place” (Isaiah 34:14)
The King James Verison renders the word “liylith” in the original Hebrew as “screech owl”; which is perhaps appropriate given Lilith’s associations with the night and with birds of prey. Other translations translate it as “night creature”, “night hag” or “vampire”.
Over time, Lilith developed two aspects: the slayer of newborns, and the seducer of men. The latter can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain a reference identifying Lilith with the warnings in the Book of Proverbs against seductive women.
The former is reflected by a Hebrew tradition that an amulet bearing the names of three angels, (Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, which would make a great name for a law firm), would protect a newborn boy in the crucial eight days before his circumcision, , when he was vulnerable to evil influences.
But what does any of this have to do with Adam?
As we've seen, the Creation account in Genesis 1 suggests that Man and Woman were created at the same time, but the account in Genesis 2 states that Adam was created first and that Eve came later. The Genesis Rabbah, a Jewish commentary on the Book of Genesis written some time after the Babylonian Talmud, explains this apparent discrepancy by postulating a First Wife for Adam, created with him on the Sixth Day.
(Personally I don’t have a problem with assuming that the “male and female” from chapter one refers to Adam and Eve from chapter two; but these learned rabbis did; and this is how they reconciled the two texts).
In the Middle Ages, sometime between the 8th and 10th Centuries, a book titled The Alphabet of ben Sirach identified this hypothetical First Wife as Lilith. The book was a series of acrostic proverbs modeled after those in the Apocryphal book Wisdom of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus; along with commentary. Many scholars consider the work to be satirical due to the number of fart jokes in it.
According to the Alphabet, Lilith was Adam’s first wife; but because they had both been created from the earth, Lilith refused to take a subordinate role to her husband. Specifically, She Wanted To Be On Top during sex, and Adam insisted that she could only be Underneath.
Lilith’s demand for equality has made her popular with modern day feminists, although I doubt that the author of The Alphabet intended her as a role-model. She left Adam and took up a new career devouring children. And things for Lilith kind of went downhill from there.
In Medieval Jewish and Christian folklore, Lilith became known as the mother of all manner of supernatural creatures, some demonic and monstrous, like giants and trolls; some just otherworldly, like elves and fairies. C.S. Lewis alludes to this idea in his Narnia books, when he has a character comment that although the White Witch claims to be a Daughter of Eve, she is actually descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith. The Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald, who was one of Lewis’s inspirations, wrote a novel called Lilith in which she is portrayed both as a seducer of men and as an enemy of children, but who nevertheless receives a chance for redemption.
But back to the legend. God had to try again making a new mate for Adam, and this time he created the woman out of Adam’s flesh so that there would be no question as to who had seniority and who was in charge. This fits in with the way a lot of people interpret the story of the Creation of Eve; that being formed out of Adam’s rib is supposed to symbolize Eve’s inferiority to Adam.
I don’t read the story quite like that. As I see it, the Genesis account’s depiction of Eve being created out of Adam’s rib is not a matter of who wears the pants in the family; (which at that point in the story was neither; pants came later); but rather to portray Eve as a part of Adam; “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” as Adam himself puts it. And the story concludes with a passage later quoted by Jesus and which is frequently used as a wedding text:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24 NIV)To me, that verse says nothing about which one is in charge, but rather that both form a partnership. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 provides us with a brief glimpse of the ideal of marriage. Perhaps the bickering Adam and Lilith of legend is closer to the reality, but it’s a cynical view.
Some have claimed that Lilith was “left out” of the Bible; which is rather like complaining that Rudolph was “left out” of the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Even though the Lilitu of Sumerian myth existed before the writing of Genesis, she did not become associated with Adam until much, much later.
Some feminists have tried to rehabilitate Lilith, claiming that she was originally a goddess of childbirth and fertility, like Ishtar or Isis, who was vilified when patriarchal religions gained ascendancy. I suppose it’s possible that the name Lilith was once associated with such a deity; but I don’t see that having anything to do with Adam. And for all Lilith’s assertive independence that we might admire, her portrayal in legend is to my mind more misogynistic than anything in Genesis.
Sadly, we don’t see much of Eve’s character in Genesis. She gets the spotlight in one story: the story of her Temptation; and she doesn't come off very well in it. We don’t really know what she was like apart for her apparent willingness to believe talking snakes, and she quickly recedes into the background. Which is a pity, because I’d like to know more about her.
Brash, ballsy, bad-girl Lilith grabs our attention, but I can’t help but feel that her story diminishes both Eve and Adam. I guess I prefer to think of Adam and Eve as the First Couple.
And Adam certainly has enough screw-ups to his name without having him be a jerk to his ex on top of everything.