Adam's First Wife: The Story of Lilith
(Editor's note: In a recent podcast entitled "Woman, Be Silent," the story of Lilith came up, prompting a litany of requests from our users for more information. TTA guest blogger "Meg" has provided an in-depth look at this fascinating legend in this post. Many thanks to her for the long hours of research on this one. -Seth)
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
To the faithful of both Christianity and Judaism, from the earliest days of the Bible until quite recently in history, that verse referred to Adam's first wife, but it wasn't Eve. It was Lilith.
Few Christians in the current age are versed with the story of Lilith despite her being a part of Christianity since its inception. However, even today, Christians (albeit unknowingly) reenact rituals meant to ward off Lilith. Among those who are familiar with the story of Lilith, there is a common belief that she was purposefully removed from scripture.
As we will later see, Lilith does appear in both older and contemporary versions of the Bible, the Jewish Torah, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. And we will examine the possibility that the omission of Lilith omission from the King James Version and other, more recent translations of the Bible might well have been intentional, rather than an error in translation. But for now, here's an overview of the basic story:
According to the first chapter of Genesis, God created Lilith and Adam both at the same time. Adam felt he was superior to Lilith, and because of this, he insisted on always taking the top position during sexual intercourse. However, Lilith refused to consider herself anything besides equal to Adam. They were, after all, created as equals, and Lilith believed she should take the top position, too. Adam refused and told Lilith, “you are fit only to be in the bottom position.”
Lilith, realizing neither she nor Adam would willingly change their mind, spoke the secret name of YHWH. Transformed into a demon, Lilith flew away from the Garden, leaving Adam behind. And since she had gone without eating from The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Lilith would remain immortal.
Adam complained to God that Lilith had left him. God sent out three angels (Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof) to return Lilith to Eden. And God told Adam that if Lilith refused to return, she would have to permit one hundred of her children to die every day.
The angels found Lilith in the midst of the Red Sea and informed her of what God had said. Lilith told them she would not return. The angels then threatened Lilith saying, “We will drown you in the sea!” Lilith cursed the angels and demanded they leave. However, Lilith agreed to spare the lives of children protected by amulets bearing the names or images of the three angels: Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof.
God watched Adam in the Garden and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” To avoid a repeat of the Lilith debacle, God decided this time to create a mate who was submissive. So God put Adam to sleep and removed one of his ribs, using it to create Eve. Upon meeting Eve, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
At this point, myriad versions of the story begin to branch off. In some accounts, Lilith mates with the archangel Samael, further transforming her into a succubus. In others, Lilith is the evil serpent in the Garden, who tempts Eve into eating from The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil so that (unlike the immortal Lilith) Adam, Eve and their offspring could die.
Through the Medieval Era and beyond, Lilith was held responsible for miscarriages and the deaths of sleeping infants. To protect babies, parents hung amulets bearing the images and names of the three angels around the child's room or on a cord around the baby's neck.
Lilith was also blamed for men ejaculating in their sleep, in the belief Lilith had tricked them into copulating to produce demon spawn, the succubi. To ward off Lilith and her succubi offspring, men slept with their hands crossed over their genitals and clasping a crucifix.
So how did Christians become familiar with the story of Lilith when all one finds of her in the Bible is a single direct mention? Well, there are numerous beliefs that people accept as part of Christianity that do not appear directly in scripture and are drawn instead by inference from particular verses.
You will not find a list of the Seven Deadly Sins in the Bible. The Bible doesn't give the actual number of wise men (magi) who visited Jesus. There is no mention that there were three of them. Those are just a couple of examples of many beliefs that do not appear directly in scripture but are based instead on verses from the Bible.
The Book of Genesis, which Christians rely on for the story of Creation, is found in a part of the Bible that Christians know as the Old Testament. Genesis is referred to as one of The Five Books of Moses, which also include Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and are known to Jews as the Jewish Torah.
The traditional practice of drawing on inference from scripture, known as Midrash, has been employed since the earliest days of the Old Testament of the Bible. In the Bible, one finds there are parts missing from characters who are otherwise well known, as well as names mentioned apparently randomly in only a verse or two. In Rabbinical Midrash tradition, it is believed God does not simply toss a name out; he had some reason for including it. The purpose of Midrash, meaning “investigation,” is to connect the dots between those names and events in other parts of scripture and to resolve conflicting passages in Biblical texts. One such discrepancy arises at the very beginning of the Bible:
Genesis 1:27 God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
In this verse, God creates man and woman at the same time. However, in Genesis 2, we read that Adam is alone.
Genesis 2:18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
So, after already having a mate created at the same time that he was, Adam is alone in Genesis 2. Then the Bible tells us that God made Adam's wife from his rib. While Christians today apparently choose to ignore the discrepancy, it presented a distinct gap to Rabbinical scholars.
In what was said to be the home town of the Bible's Abraham, 4,000-year-old stone tablets from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur tell the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh. In developing the Midrash to explain Lilith's presence in the Bible, the Rabbinical authors returned to the original source for clues; the epic poem of Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, a creation story of the world that tells of a special garden with a magical tree, and a being who occupied the tree before going to live in the desert, Lilith.
While this is likely news to most Christians, from the time it was written, the originality of the Bible has been a point of contention. The Epic of Gilgamesh predates the Old Testament accounts of Genesis by nearly 1,500 years.
Fortunately for its authors, the Bible was written long before the existence of copyright law. Those who wrote the Bible “borrowed” stories from far older religions and cultures. And the authors of the ancient Rabbinical Midrash regarding Lilith were aware of that fact, which is what led them to connect the Creation story to this verse of the Bible:
Isaiah 34:14 “Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest.”
While Lilith is mentioned by name in the original version of the Garden of Eden in the Gilgamesh poem, in the Bible, she is mentioned by name in Isaiah, and as in the Gilgamesh poem, she is said to live in the desert.
Lilith got her name from the Babylonian lil?tu, desert-dwelling spirits whose breasts produce poison instead of milk. The lil?tu were considered a threat to the very young, the unborn, and their mothers. The related ardat lil? are promiscuous, sexually aggressive succubi to whom men were susceptible, exploited by the succubi to produce offspring.
In the Rabbinical Midrash, further connections are made between the Lilith mentioned in Isaiah 34:14 and Psalm 9:5-6:
Psalm 9:5 will not fear the terror of night... 9:6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness...
So, according to Rabbinical Midrash, Genesis 1 and 2, Isaiah 34, and Psalm 9 provide the canonical scripture behind the Lilith story.
Additional sources regarding Lilith include the Zohar, which is the foundational work of Jewish Mysticism known as Kabbalah, the Alphabet of Ben Sira, the Talmud, and the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Zohar 3:19 “Come and see: There is a female, a spirit of all spirits, and her name is Lilith...”
Zohar (19b) “She wanders about at night, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defile themselves...”
Ben Sira 23a-b “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 as we were both created from the earth.'”
The Talmud (Niddah 24b) 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.
The Talmud (Shabbath 151b) 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.
Dead Sea Scrolls, Songs of Sage (4Q510-511) And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendour so as to frighten and to terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers, and desert dwellers… and those which fall upon men without warning to lead them astray from a spirit of understanding and to make their heart and their […] desolate during the present dominion of wickedness and predetermined time of humiliations for the sons of light, by the guilt of the ages of those smitten by iniquity – not for eternal destruction, but for an era of humiliation for transgression.
We know where Lilith came from and why she is part of Abrahamic beliefs. So why did Lilith, arguably one of the most interesting characters of the Bible, vanish within relatively recent history from Bible translations and the practice of Christianity?
While in Old and Middle English the spelling of her Hebrew name varies among the texts, Lilith appears in one of the first English translations of the Bible, the Wycliffe Bible of 1395. And she is included in further English translations up to and including the Great Bible and the Taverner Bible, versions of the Bible which appeared in the midst of the Protestant split from the Catholic Church in the Reformation.
Now this is where it gets interesting -- the Geneva Bible from 1587.
King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church while the Reformation was in full swing on the European continent. The Protestants, led in Germany by Martin Luther, had rejected the Catholic Church and were establishing their own version of the Christian faith.
However, following the deaths of Henry VIII and her younger brother, Edward VI, Henry's daughter, Mary, inherited the throne becoming Queen Mary I. Mary was a devout Catholic and, through her restoration of Catholicism in England, became known among Protestants as “Bloody Mary” for the execution of Protestant leaders. To escape persecution, a number of Protestant scholars from both England and France fled to Geneva, in Switzerland. The group is known as the Marian (as in Mary) Exiles.
One of the scholars who landed in Switzerland was John Calvin, founder of the Protestant reform movement of Calvinism. He overtook the theological leadership of the Marian Exiles. Together, Protestant scholars decided to reform the Bible as they had the tenets of their faith. Part of their work is evidenced in the addition of numbers to the verses, the Geneva Bible representing the first time numbered verses were seen in an English language Bible. The Marian Exiles also followed the lead of Martin Luther in the removal of canonical books, which had been present in the Biblical texts since their original compilations, and relegated them instead to the Apocrypha.
Historically, in all former versions of the Bible, Isaiah 34:14 says “...there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest.”
Then we get to the Geneva Bible produced by Calvin and his colleagues in exile, and Isaiah 34:14 reads, “and the shricheowle shall rest there, and shall finde for her selfe a quiet dwelling.”
As I speak German, it struck me when reading the Geneva Bible version of Isaiah that Lilith's name had been replaced by a Germanic term. In German, related words are combined to form a single word instead. The term “shricheowle” breaks down into the words “schrei” meaning scream, screech, etc. and the word “eule” meaning owl. In other words, Lilith had, without precedent, been replaced by a screech owl.
Responsible for translating the Old Testament of the Geneva Bible was a British scholar, Anthony Gilby. Gilby was a radical whose beliefs would later become known by the term Puritanism.
Gilby, although he studied in Germany and spoke German, does not typically use Germanic terms in his texts, yet he did so in Isaiah as a means of replacing Lilith's name. And as it turns out, Gilby was a vocal critic of female monarchs such as Mary being in command of the country.
Anthony Gilby's Admonition, 634: And doth not Esaie (Isaiah) recken this also as the extremitie of all plages for the wickednes of the people, to have Women raised up to rule over you? But what saieth the same Prophete, in the begynnyng of his prophesie, for a remedie against these and all other evilles?
In demanding equality with Adam, Lilith was demonized in the most literal sense. However, even then and despite the threats issued by the patriarchal figures in the story, Lilith refused to be submissive. In light of her character, it hardly seems a coincidence that Gilby chose Isaiah, the only book where Lilith is mentioned in by name in the Bible, to use in his Admonition against powerful female monarchs, which he termed an evil and counted as a plague.
The evidence indicates Gilby knew exactly what he was doing when he replaced Lilith in the Bible. In the Gilgamesh poem, Lilith is said to live in a tree, and in her image carved onto stone tablets that predate the Bible, she appears pictured as a winged creature with talons, and she is flanked by two large owls.
The Geneva Bible was the Bible of people such as Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell. Incidentally, screech owls are a species found only on the continents of the Americas, but are also mentioned by Shakespeare.
The screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Presumably, Europeans who came to the New World brought the name for the screech owl with them in Shakespeare’s work and their Bibles, as decades after the Geneva Bible when the King James Version of the Bible was published, Lilith had gone from shricheowle to screech owl:
KJV Isaiah 34:14 ...the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.
The replacement of Lilith with the screech owl in the KJV secured Gilby's removal of Lilith not only from the Bible, but eventually also from the traditional beliefs of Western Christianity. Though in the nighttime cries of Lilith's American namesake, the screech owl, Lilith remains part of the same fearful superstitions that have plagued Christians since the inception of their faith. For the first European settlers in the strange, New World, hearing such cries echoing through the night must have been unnerving indeed.
Just for fun, at the following link, you will find a recording of the screech owl, which sounds remarkably similar, I think, to the cackling of witches we're familiar with on Halloween:
Tonight, both non-Christian and Christian parents alike will sing their children a lullaby, or rather a “Lilith, abi”, meaning “Lilith, begone.”
We have all heard of Lilith. Some of us just hadn't realized it yet.