Donald Trump got me thinking about one of the most interesting characters in Jewish mythology: Lilith, the notorious first wife of Adam. She appears in various forms in a number of mythological stories across cultures beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Dead Sea Scrolls, The book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, The Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, “Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith,” and “The Coming of Lilith” by Judith Plaskow. In close reading, these stories reveal a woman who could be interpreted as a free spirit wishing to control her destiny and because of this, she is characterized as a demon while in another vision of her, she becomes the snake in the Garden, luring Adam and Eve into mortal and irreversible original sin. Finally, in the Judith Plaskow piece, she is revealed to be a strong woman willing to sacrifice herself to save and enlighten her sister Eve, a significant elaboration and rich mythologizing of the Adam and Eve creation story.
Lilith comes from an ancient Sumerian name for female demons and wind spirits called lilitu, according to Janet Howe Gaines in the article, “Lilith: Seductress, Heroine, or Murderer?” These spirits were known for attacking pregnant women and infants as well as for their sexual harassment of young men. Lilith, or Lilit, is often depicted with long, flowing hair and wings, and sometimes with birds’ feet or as Michelangelo imagined her, with the body of a snake and the face of a woman. In the book of Isaiah, 34: 14, this demon appears in the Judgment of Edom: “Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; there shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.” The punishment of Edom echoes that of Sodom and Gomorrah, so it seems reasonable that evil in all its forms would find shelter there. She haunts deserts and lonely places, swooping down to infect those she attacks with her poison. She is a dramatic and dark figure in the Old Testament landscape.
She also appears in the dusty parchments found at Qumran, The Dead Sea Scrolls: “And I, the Master, proclaim the majesty of his beauty to frighten and terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels and the spirits of the bastards, the demons, Lilith, the howlers and the yelpers, they who strike suddenly to lead astray the spirit of understanding and to appal [sic] their heart…in the age of the domination of wickedness…” Here, too, she is a paradigm of evil who can only be vanquished by God. She is a demon called out in exorcisms, and Janet Howe Gaines assures us that “the Qumran community was surely familiar with the Isaiah passage…” This brings us to Judaism’s entanglement with Lilith and her origins in Jewish texts, specifically, the Talmud where Lilith is said to be a succubus, or female demon who comes in the guise of a woman to lie with men in sleep and become pregnant by them from their nocturnal emissions.
The ancient mystical Jewish text known as The Zohar mentions Lilith in several sections. We learn that Adam was “not careful” with this, his first mate. “Seduced by her, he sinned with that whore of a woman, the primordial serpent.” Again, she is woman in form only, but her overriding character is that of the demon temptress, the whore leading men astray. Later, she is paired with Sama’el as one of his consorts. He is Satan, and the text tells us that she is his equal, his partner, also called a “Serpent,” a “Woman of Whoredom, End of All Flesh, End of Days. Two evil spirits joined together…” The ancient authors of the text go on tell us that she is a “smooth-tongued alien,” an “evil woman.” Rabbi Abba is quoted as saying that human beings are on a single path to the divine, but this seducer perverts this path day after day and time after time. Lilith has the power to lure human beings away from God and into darkness.
The battle between Lilith and Adam is one of matriarch versus patriarch. In “Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith,” the two original human beings fight for dominance. The symbolism of the position of male and female in the sexual act is a struggle for power. Lilith is a woman who will not obey her man, making her a rich symbol for feminist interpretations of the text. Lilith’s angry outburst is to name God, a major transgression in Jewish tradition. His name cannot be uttered without dire consequences, but she does it, and performs the act with salty abandon. The one hundred of her children she is sentenced to see die every day as punishment assures a balance between good and evil in the world. Lilith is fertile and procreative, but only dark beings issue from her nighttime couplings, often the result of “wet dreams.” The spawn of Lilith are not conceived in the proper way; their path to creation is shrouded in darkness and evil. The passage tells us that amulets must be prepared to protect healthy infants from the horrible demon Lilith.
In Judith Plaskow’s piece, we come to a breath of fresh air, and through analysis, see a different interpretation of this unique creature. The most interesting aspect is that she is created from the same cosmic dust as Adam; in short, they are true equals. They were, Plaskow tells us, “equal in all ways,” which leaves the reader to imagine that this equality would extend to the procreative act. In this telling, God is branded just another man, already siding with Adam in this domestic battlefield. It is the story of the feminist revolt against the good old boys network put in place to keep undesirables, namely women, under control. Lilith flees this claustrophobic relationship. She seeks justice and equity, and it is significant that she can get neither from her creator God or her husband. God is tarnished with abusive patriarchy as much as Adam. So she flies away.
God does not make the same mistake twice. He creates Eve from Adam’s rib; out of man comes woman, which already casts a shadow on her sex. Eve is doomed to servitude. However, this quaking, seething mess of a marriage in the most beautiful and pastoral garden is threatened by Lilith who tries to return. Eve sees her and, as Plaskow recounts, “began to think about the limits of her own life within the garden.” This is the quantifiable crux of the story, the epiphany, the turning point not for Adam or Lilith, but for the newcomer Eve. She is awakened to the possibilities in life. She sees, quite literally, over Adam’s wall to the great wide open. Walls are there to be climbed, to be knocked down, to be obliterated, and once enlightenment begins for Eve, things cannot return to being as they were. The wall is blown apart. Plaskow writes in language beautiful and fraught with poetry: “And they [Lilith and Eve] sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future…And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”
Plaskow’s version of the story resonates so strongly with feminists and those who respect women. However, why is Lilith demonized in other myths and texts? In those tales, Lilith is characterized as evil and ostracized because she wishes to control her own fate and sex. In Isaiah, she is lumped in with the horrific annihilation of Edom and destined to roam the desert in a deranged haze. Why is she subjected to such punishment? In a word, land. Edom is destroyed because the land of Zion has been wronged. Zion has suffered encroachment. Therefore, God will send every evil scourge he can muster down upon the heads of Edom’s inhabitants, and the demon Lilith is one of those scourges. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lilith is put with the bastards and those who stray from the proper understanding—in other words, those who do not think the way they should, the howlers and the yelpers. Are they the protestors, those who stand up for others? Are they those who seek justice and equity, who dare to challenge the status quo? In the Zohar text she is again a temptress, a consort with Sama’el. She is again an outsider, and a negative influence on others with her smooth tongue and seductive ways.
The question remains: who is Lilith? In Plaskow’s poetic version, and one that is most acceptable because it reveals her character, she is a woman who clearly speaks her mind. She questions the way things are, and acts as a facilitator and teacher for Eve, a woman later charged with corrupting mankind and costing human beings the Garden of Eden. Lilith is enigmatic, gutsy, wild, and most importantly, free. She flies across the desert, wraps herself in snakes, dares to be sensual and sexual. She is every man’s fantasy and every man’s curse, a haunting, dream-like presence who threatens to shake loose the foundation stones of society. And yes, she is woman.
- Lilith: Seductress, Heroine, or Murder?" by Janet Howe Gaines Bible Review (October, 2001)
- The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls translated by Geze Vermes (New York: Penguin, 2001)
- The Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment translated by Danial Chanan Matt (N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983
- The New American Bible (World Catholic Press, 2011)
- "Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith" (various translators)
- "The Coming of Lilith" by Judith Plaskow from Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, editors (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)