The Demoness Lillith in the Bible

As we celebrate the increasingly “secular” holiday of Halloween, young and old embrace the spooky and the macabre and perhaps score some candy in the process. Since Halloween is about as far from the Bible as you can get, I want to turn instead to something that is both biblical and spooky: demons. Although demons are only directly mentioned in the New Testament, Jewish legends had demons playing a greater part in the Old Testament/Hebrew bible than our received text would indicate. The first and most well known of these demons is actually a demoness, Lillith.

If pop culture is any judge, Lillith is one of the most famous biblical figures to never actually appear in the bible. Whether she’s Adam’s first wife, a demon, a feminist symbol, or a combination of all three; she is a force to be reckoned with. She has been the namesake of a music festival, at least three comic book characters, several songs and films, the subject of paintings, astrology, and even a villainess on Doctor Who. There’s even an early personal computer named for her, though I’m not quite sure I see her appeal as a company mascot.

Who was Lillith? And where did this legend begin? Those questions are tough, but the answer starts in the bible– not with a capital-L Lillith, but with a type of demon, lowercase-L lilliths. In this post, I’ll follow the story of Lillith as it appears in the bible, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and eventually blossoms into her first incarnation as a feminist symbol in the Talmud. The full legend of Lillith as Adam’s wife is an 8th century invention of Jewish mysticism and outside the scope of this blog, but all of her roots are here. Read on… if you dare.

Adam’s First Wife

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. There are no Lilliths in this picture. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The legend of Lillith begins at the beginning, the first chapter of Genesis. As we’ve talked about before, the first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate stories describing the creation of the Earth. The first story depicts God creating using the power of the word: “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3) while the second shows God creating in a more physical way, like a potter working clay he “formed a man from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). They are not mutually exclusive, but they do feature God creating man in both stories.

In chapter one, God creates both man and woman together:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26-27

But when we get to chapter two, it appears that God hasn’t created woman yet:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. […] The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Genesis 2:15,18

Some other time, I will make a post about the differences and different interpretations of the two stories of creation, as well as the handful of elaborations which appear later in scripture. But for now, back to demons.

This ambiguity was known and discussed by rabbinical authorities from very early days. The 4th century commentary Genesis Rabbah offers several explanations. One theory is that the “man” that was created in Genesis 1 is a hermaphrodite. Thus, when his “rib” is taken in Genesis 2, it is actually a poetic way to say that this person was split in half to create a male and female part. This theory plays well with the notion that man is created in God’s image as God is variously depicted with male (warrior) and female (creator) aspects. Another theory is that there were two “Eves” created, but that Adam rejected the first one, causing God to create a second:

At first He created her for him and he saw her full of discharge and blood; thereupon He removed her from him and recreated her a second time.
Genesis Rabbah 18:4

The story of Lillith that became popular later borrowed this second idea, that of a woman created first then judged unfit. While Genesis Rabbah has Adam repulsed by his wife, the later Lillith story will depict her as being cast aside for demanding equality with her husband. He wanted a servant and she wanted an equal partner. Of course, while there is “room” for the story here, the Torah does not have anything to say about Lillith. For that, we have to skip ahead a few books.

Lillith in the Hebrew Bible

Small mice and reptiles tremble before the mighty screech owl!
Small mice and reptiles tremble before the mighty screech owl!

Lillith’s one and only real appearance in the bible is hardly even an appearance at all. In fact, she has only a passing mention which is omitted in many translations. The passage in question is a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah and here it is, in one translation that I found that includes the “lillith” reference:

And desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and goat-demons will call out to each other. There also liliths will settle, and find for themselves a resting place.
Isaiah 34:14 (International Standard Version)

This passage describes several kinds of wild spirits that haunt the night. “Lillith” here is not a proper name, but a type of demon which biblical scholars suppose is related to a evil female spirit from Babylonian mythology. This one reference only plants the seeds which will bear fruit in later legends and at this point only the creature’s femininity connects her to the later woman of legend.

Most modern translations move away from this text as a reference to a demon, though they are not at all consistent as to what they think the word actually means. Here’s the translation from the NIV where “lillith” is just a “night creature” and even the goat-demon has now been demoted to a “wild goat”:

Desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and wild goats will bleat to each other; there the night creatures will also lie down and find for themselves places of rest.
Isaiah 34:14

For my money, that seems much less exciting. As I am not a Hebrew scholar, I cannot speculate on why these translation choices were made, only that they were. The venerable King James Version translates “lillith” as “screech owl” which is even less impressive (except perhaps to small mammals), but it probably reflects a European bias as the screech owl is not native to the middle east. A few other, generally older, translations use other mythological terms such as “lamia”, “vampire”, “hag”, “monster”, and similar. You can see a selection of how different bibles translate this passage on BibleHub.

Lillith in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Adam, Eve, and Lillith -- an illustration from the 15th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Adam, Eve, and Lillith — an illustration from the 15th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Lillith doesn’t end there! Somewhat surprisingly, our next reference to Lillith is actually in the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the scrolls found in fragmentary form, now called the “Songs of the Sage”, is a description of the way that the sect’s leader was able to call upon God to protect the people from evil spirits.

And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendor so as to frighten and to terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lillith, howlers, and desert dwellers […]
Songs of the Sage, 4Q510-511, 5Q510 Frag. 1:4-5

Here the capitalization is ambiguous (and added by the translator), but while the translator wants to make the connection with capital-L Lillith of Adam and Eve, my own belief is that the text is referring to the lillith demons from the book of Isaiah instead. The reference to “desert dwellers” makes the connection is Isaiah 34 almost explicit. And yet, this reference is no less exciting because it shows that Lillith was still part of the Jewish folk consciousness into the end of the Common Era.

Although we have a demon Lillith in this passage, I am not aware of any other references to Lillith in the Scrolls. Jubilees, the wholesale retelling of Genesis and the first part of Exodus, would have been the most logical place for her to appear and yet it retains without elaboration the original’s double-creation of man. If we want to take the story of Lillith further, we’re going to have to get into Talmud.

Lillith in the Talmud

Byzantine amulet depicting Solomon (on horseback) attacking Lillith. 5th century. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Byzantine amulet depicting Solomon (on horseback) attacking Lillith. 5th century. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lillith appears three times in the Babylonian Talmud, in tractates Shabbat, Eruvin, and Nidda. The last of which involves abortion and is too graphic for this blog, but the other two offer a portrait of Lillith that is evolving into her more feminist form we would see later. In none of the Talmud stories does she get connected to the story of Adam and Eve.

The first reference to Lillith appears in a section where the sages are discussing a common superstition:

R. Papa said: We hold [as tradition] that a lion does not attack two persons [together]. But we see that it does? […]  R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone,  and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 181B

Again, the use of capital-L “Lillith” is a decision by the translator, but the ideas here are classic. What horror movie doesn’t feature the protagonists separating, only to have one devoured by the monster? The very notion that sleeping alone was rare enough to justify this type of superstition is interesting in itself, but it doesn’t tell us too much about the demoness. What about the desert dwelling “night creature” inspired people to fear that she would creep into the houses of lonely people? I have no idea.

The next reference to Lillith however is our first glimpse of her as something of a feminist symbol, already despised by the rabbis of the sixth century. In the Tractate Eruvin, there is a set of commentary by the rabbis on whether it is proper for a man to force his wife to have sex with him. Before you scoff at their backwardness, don’t forget that “marital rape” was permitted under US law until late in the 20th century and the idea that the rabbis were concerned with this fifteen hundred years prior is fairly progressive in its way. This leads into a more general discussion of the ten curses that God placed on women, one of which is that she isn’t allowed to be near men that aren’t her husband. In that context, the rabbis then describe what a “evil” woman would be like:

She grows hair like a [Lillith]. She sits while urinating, like a mule. She is a pillow to her husband [she is underneath during relations];
Tractate Eruvin, 100b

In this example, the word Lillith wasn’t used by my translation, but it is used by others so I have substituted it for clarity. This example finally shows Lillith, at least indirectly, as a symbol of female power: a woman with long hair, who pees… like a mule (whatever that means), and who enjoys sex in the missionary position. And if you are confused by how those could be seen as negative traits, you aren’t alone because the Talmud continues with a debate by the rabbis whether those traits are actually praiseworthy. Confused yet? Me, too. But the important take-away was that for the first time we have Lillith connected to female power in a very vulgar and explicit way, but also one that is still symbolic today.

Lillith would continue to resonate with Jewish and Christian thinkers– and while she did not appear in any Christian holy texts that I am aware of, she was featured in Christian art well into the middle-ages.

Lillith in the Alphabet of ben Sirach

Before I close, it wouldn’t be fair of me to at least quote the most common source for the modern legend of Lilith, the Alphabet of ben Sirach. This book isn’t biblical, was written perhaps as late as the 11th century, and may even have been intended as a satire of religious texts. And yet, some of the stories in it were adopted by Jewish mystics and took on a life of their own. It is also possible that the author was elaborating on folktales already out in society, but this is the earliest written record we have.

This text borrowed those earlier images of Lillith and expanded on them, highlighting the “radical feminist” interpretation of the Talmud and turning her into a creature vilified by the male-dominated societies the middle-ages.

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 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 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 and flew away into the air.
Alphabet of ben Sirach

Although this must have been laughable in its day, Lillith has a point. Small-minded men throughout history have made too much of the stories of Genesis and used those words to oppress and condemn their sisters, wives, and daughters. It is no wonder then that Lillith has become a symbol of female power, even as her roots as we have seen are quite a bit more complicated than that.

Up next, I hope to finally post something about Enoch before resuming the story of Jacob and Esau. Stay tuned!

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