Friday, 21 February 2014

Lilith: the rebel between the texts

The ‘Queen of the Night’ relief from the
British Museum, identified by some
scholars as Lilith. Old Babylonian,
1800-1750 BCE.
One of the Hebrew Bible’s many inconsistencies gave rise to an intriguing and powerful myth: Adam had a first wife called Lilith, who left the garden of Eden rather than submit to her husband.

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, Adam is created with a partner from the outset:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (1:27)

(The word ‘man’ used in this ESV translation should be understood in the sense of ‘humankind’.) In the next chapter, by contrast, Adam is created alone (verse 7) and there is a considerable delay before a female companion is created for him (verses 21-22).

To explain contradictions like this in the Tanakh, Jewish scholarship developed a system of interpretation known as the midrash, a form of rabbinic literature which used great ingenuity to resolve gaps and problems in the text. The midrash scholars felt an explanation was needed for the differing accounts above, so they proposed additional elements to the creation story. The Genesis Rabbah, a midrash of uncertain date (possibly the 5th century CE) offering interpretations of the text of Genesis, says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. God creates a woman simultaneously with Adam as related in Genesis 1:27, but Adam finds her ‘full of discharge and blood’, so God removes her and tries again. When Cain and Abel fight, one rabbi proposes the cause of their quarrel was ‘the first Eve’.

In the Talmud, a rabbinic commentary on Judaism completed in about the 5th century CE, a character called Lilith appears, incidentally, like someone who needs no introduction. She is a succubus with long hair and wings, who steals sperm from Adam while he sleeps to sire evil demons.

The only mention of Lilith in the Bible is a single verse from the book of Isaiah which may or may not mention her, depending upon your translation. The NRSV says:

Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest. (Isaiah 34:14)

The Hebrew word is liyliyth, and this is its only appearance in the Bible. Scholars don’t agree on what it means. It may refer to the Mesopotamian demon, lilitu. Other translations render it ‘screech owl’ (KJV), or varieties of night creature – ‘night hag’ (RSV), ‘night creatures’ (NIV) or ‘night bird’ (ESV) – because of the word’s similarity to the Hebrew word for ‘night’. Whatever is intended, it is very unlikely to be a reference to a supposed first wife of Adam.

The association of Lilith with the ‘first wife’ originates centuries later in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous compilation of proverbs and stories probably dating to somewhere between 700-1000 CE. The cause of the couple’s problems was Adam’s insistence that Lilith submit to his authority:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). 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 in 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 [the true name of God] and flew away into the air.

This is the first identification of Lilith as the rebel first wife of Adam.

Adam complains to God, who sends three angels to fetch Lilith back. They tell her that if she does not return, one hundred of her children will die every day. She retorts that harming newborns was the reason why she was created, but agrees not to harm any infants wearing amulets with the names or images of the three angels. God then creates Eve as a more agreeable partner for Adam. She is more subservient, for she was created from Adam’s side, not from the earth as Lilith was.

Amulet for protection against Lilith,
18th century
The Alphabet is not midrashic literature but popular entertainment: a satire that parodies Biblical characters and rabbinic lore, possibly to entertain the rabbis themselves. The key to understanding its incidental reference to Lilith may lie in the mention of the amulets. To keep child-stealing demons at bay, incantation bowls with protective inscriptions would be buried in the ground, and amulets hung round the necks of pregnant women, so the Alphabet passage may have been an irreverent attempt to explain this old practice. Whatever the truth, the story seems to have made an impression on the medieval Jewish imagination, and Lilith became part of folk tradition.

Lilith also appears in Kabbalistic literature. In the 13th century CE she appears in the Zohar, a set of commentaries on the Torah. This was presented as a discovery by the Spanish rabbi Moses de León, but the likelihood is that he wrote it himself, and that he was aware of the Alphabet. The Zohar reprises the familiar Lilith story, showing her in all three of her aspects: as primitive Eve, child-harmer and succubus. It also associates her with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve, and thus with Satan. This folktale may have inspired the medieval and Renaissance depictions of the serpent with a female head and/or body, though it’s possible this imagery was instead intended as a comment upon Eve, implying she is a temptress by association.

The demon

The Alphabet’s author begins by reference to the existing tradition of the prototype first wife, then feeds in the Talmudic references to Lilith as a demon. This characterisation evokes earlier Sumerian-Babylonian myths about winged spirits who lurked in deserted places and preyed on humans during the night. The Sumerian lilitu and the Babylonian Lamashtu killed infants and threatened women and babies during pregnancy and childbirth. The first literary mention of Lilith may occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh by way of the poem Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree, though whether it refers to Lilith is disputed, and the ancient Israelites could easily have come into contact with such stories via the hegemony of Assyria and Babylon. The character of the Jewish Lilith therefore could be a mixture of the ‘first wife’ theory with ancient Mesopotamian superstition.[1]

We may interpret these female demons in a couple of ways. Firstly, like other gods, spirits and myths, they offered ancient people an explanation for things that happened in their lives. Why are children sometimes born dead, or suffer ‘cot death’? Why do women die in childbirth? By inventing malicious demons, people identified a cause and, reassuringly, made it possible to take action: protective objects like amulets provided a sense of control in the face of frightening and mysterious forces.

The other role of the female demons is as symbols of lust. Not only is Lilith a killer, she is a seductress. Male priests and scribes seem to have projected some of their sexual fantasies into their picture of Lilith as a femme fatale. What modernity understands simply as wet dreams were explained by superstition as the work of a female night demon or succubus, seducing men in their sleep. Through devilish intercourse, Lilith gave birth to a hundred demon children every day, populating the world with evil. This layer of negative sexual meaning has tended historically to drown out the legend’s positive aspect of female empowerment. If Lilith turned evil when she stood up to Adam, any woman who does not accept male authority could end up the same way.

Wild-haired, naked, and
intimate with a phallic
serpent – John Collier’s
19th century Lilith.
Some writers enjoy ascribing this hostility to a psychological ‘male fear of female sexuality’ but the ultimate origins of inequality are more material. During the Neolithic Revolution, men acquired a disproportionate control over social resources that were rapidly growing thanks to new techniques of farming and domestication. However, even when women are oppressed, they can still exert power over heterosexual men through sexuality – sex is an instinct with no respect for societal constructs of class and gender. Thus female sexuality has been a source of suspicion for centuries, as a weapon women can use to subdue men. The Talmudic references to Lilith’s long hair may be significant in this context, since during the Middle Ages keeping the hair covered was a convention for married Jewish women: Maimonides and the Zohar for example stress its importance. Loose, long hair has often been a symbol of sinful female sexuality.

In the 19th century, Lilith enjoyed a new phase of interest as a sexual fantasy. She made her first significant literary appearance since the Zohar in Goethe’s Faust, followed a few years later by Keats’ Lamia. In these poems she is a mysterious figure of beauty and seduction, with some of her darker behaviours removed, a trend that continued forty years later when she was painted as a luxuriantly haired narcissist by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This incarnation of a more modern Lilith, with the supernatural horror eased out for the comfort of Victorian gentlemen, opened the doors for more positive interpretations of the character.

Ironically, God’s famous exhortation to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis Chapter 1, the first thing he says to the new couple, indicates he doesn’t have a problem with sex. Chapter 2 tells us “a man shall… hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”, another strong indication that for the Bible, sex is part of human nature from the outset.[2]

The feminist

In the 20th century, the myth entered another new phase, as feminists – playing down her demonic aspect – began to claim Lilith for their own. It is not difficult to see why. Lilith is an assertive and sexually independent woman who refuses to submit to a social order defined by men. She assumes she has the right to equality with Adam, and when this is denied she insists on her independence. She escapes to the Red Sea, symbolically retreading Moses’ path to freedom, and becomes the opposite of the stereotypical supportive mother.

In 1976 a group of Jewish feminists took her as an inspiration when creating the magazine Lilith; one of its co-founders, Aviva Cantor, wrote about her in very positive terms as a role model for Jewish women:

Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimisation. By acknowledging Lilith’s revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith’s power.[3]

Cantor points out that Lilith is the ‘negative, shadow role, the flip side’ of Eve, who appears as Adam’s helper and is a more acceptable female archetype than a woman who insists on equality.

In creating the Lilith shadow role, men are telling a woman that if she is independent, assertive, free, as Lilith was, she’ll end up a frigid nymphomaniac childless witch. 

We pointed out in our previous article that Eve too was viewed as morally suspect, blamed for humanity’s fall from grace and for original sin. But Lilith was far more powerfully associated with wayward female sexuality than Eve. Various cultures have made comparisons between a ‘negative’ feminine and a ‘positive’ feminine, the Judaeo-Christian tradition included. In Christianity, all women, including Eve the sinner, were given the impossible task of living up to the example of the flawless virgin, Mary. In the Zohar Lilith is contrasted, as an unholy harlot, with the holy and wholesome Shekhinah, the divine presence of God in female manifestation.

It may seem paradoxical that a myth so adaptable to feminism was written by men. But society consists of both sexes and multiple viewpoints, and sexism is therefore never unchallenged. Contrary to the simplistic view, men are not uniformly hostile to women, and women are not uniformly submissive to men. Women of all historical periods are active members of society in spite of sexism, and the ‘rebel wife’ aspect of Lilith may be a manifestation of independent-minded women who could be found in the ancient Near East like they could everywhere else.[4]

Between the texts

As we’ve seen, the Torah was put together from a variety of source texts, and when sources are pasted together with little or no editorial smoothing-over, it can create problems. The Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman however points out that the Bible is more than the sum of its parts. The juxtaposing of texts created meanings that neither the original writers nor the redactors foresaw.

In Who Wrote The Bible?, Friedman gives the example of the Bible’s conception of God. The God of J, E and D tends to be seen in personal ways, walking in Eden and talking directly, even debating, with human beings. The God of P is very different: he tends to be remote and transcendent, and doesn’t make physical appearances or chat with his followers. The combination of these two conceptions of God, the personal and the transcendent, inadvertently created a new kind of deity: a cosmic god who could be experienced in very personal ways.

It was not planned by any of the authors. It was probably not even the redactor’s design. It was so embedded in the texts that the redactor could not have helped but produce the new mixture as long as he was at all true to his sources.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of the ‘God of mercy’ pictured by J, E and D with the ‘God of justice’ pictured by P leads to a new conception, in which justice and mercy are in tension or balance. Like a parent, God is sometimes loving, sometimes angry; he is sometimes intimate, sometimes remote. Friedman concludes:

The mixing of the sources into one text enriched the interpretive possibilities of the Bible for all time.

In a different way, Lilith too is an unforeseen consequence of the Bible’s process of construction. The mismatch of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis was essentially an accident that arose from the combination of two independent texts. But it opened a space which Lilith stepped in to fill, thanks largely to the imagination, ingenuity and sexual hang-ups of male writers in the ensuing centuries.

Whatever the precise origins of the Lilith myth, this fiction has acquired a life of its own. The prototype wife of the Genesis Rabbah – already an unattractive image of women – developed into an evil succubus, then recently became a feminist icon. The story can serve two completely different communities equally well. On the one hand, she is the first feminist, a woman who refuses to accept being treated as Adam’s unequal. On the other, she is a patriarchal warning against women who get above themselves. There is no ‘correct’ Lilith, only a multitude of Liliths, in different times and places, making her difficult to pin down. (This may contribute to her popularity in mysticism and New Ageism, which thrive upon smoke and mirrors.) Like any product of the symbolic imagination, she can become whatever successive generations want her to be.

Further reading

Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, ‘The Lilith Question’, 1976.
Amy Scerba, Changing Literary Representations of Lilith and the Evolution of a Mythical Heroine on the Feminism and Women’s Studies website, 1999.


[1] This sinister ancestry has informed more recent versions of Lilith. Through Lamashtu’s habit of sucking the blood of men and bringing nightmares, Lilith entered into vampire myth as well, appearing for example as a vampire goddess in the TV series True Blood.
[2] The image of course is heterosexual. We shall look at the Bibles attitude to homosexuality another time.
[3] Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, ‘The Lilith Question’, 1976.
[4] Karl Marx pointed out that the progress of a society could be measured by the status of its women: hopefully one day men and women will be able to relate to each other without the stupidity of sexism and superstition.