University Congregational Church
Feb. 16, 2014
“Bad Girls; Good Stories: Lilith”
Isaiah 34: 8-14
Much that I am sharing with you today is from the Biblical Archaeology Society.
For 4,000 years, Lilith has wandered the earth. She began as a Babylonian mythological creature; an evil spirit who caused the death of pregnant women and children. The earliest surviving mention of her is in a Sumerian epic poem found on a tablet dating back to 2000 BCE. Lilith – her name and her history are synonymous with ugly, evil, and even demonic.
Next, her story was adopted and adapted into the stories of the ancient Egyptians, Israelites and Greeks. The Biblical Archaeological Society has identified a 4,000 year old terracotta plaque depicting her. On it, she is a beautiful, naked nymph with bird wings, taloned feet and hair contained under a cap decorated with several pairs of horns. She stands atop two lions and between two owls, apparently bending them to her will. Her long association with the owl – which is a predatory and nocturnal bird – warns of her night flying to unsuspecting women to snatch their newborn child away.
In the Bible, she is mentioned only once, in Isaiah 34. Throughout the book of Isaiah, the prophet encourages the Hebrew people to avoid foreigners who worship alien deities. In our text for today, the prophet Isaiah writes an apocalyptic poem about a sword-wielding Yahweh (the Hebrew God) who denounces Edom (Israel’s enemy). According to Isaiah’s poem, Edom will become a chaotic desert land where the soil is infertile and wild animals roam. Furthermore, Lilith will be there. The scripture is found in your bulletin. Evidently, the Lilith demon was well known to the readers that no explanation of her identity was necessary. She is part of the curse on Israel’s enemy and labeled “the night demon”.
This text from the Bible links Lilith directly to the wilderness… that’s Biblical shorthand for mental and physical barrenness. It is also a place where creativity and life itself are easily disposed. Lilith is the feminine opposite of masculine order and so is relegated to the desert and exiled to the void where she can do less harm.
Lilith does not get another mention in the Bible, but she is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. Her name is part of the Song for a Sage. Scholars believe it may have been a hymn used in exorcisms.
Lilith is also mentioned in the Hebrew Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of:
- rabbinical writings,
- legal documents,
- midrashim (stories about stories in the Bible), and
- meditations on Bible passages.
In the Talmud, Lilith has long hair and wings. She is a demon who visited men during their sleep. There is even a warning that people should not sleep alone at night in case she came to kill them.
It is in the Talmud that the story of Lilith at the creation of the world is found. There are different Lilith myths, including that she was Adam’s first wife – before Eve. This myth is midrashim trying to tie together the 2 separate creation stories in the Bible. If you read the creation stories together, as one story, it appears that God created woman twice – once with the male and another time from the male’s rib. Genesis 1 describes humans being made together in the image of God. But Genesis 2 separates the creation of Adam and then the creation of Eve. Some ancient person suggested that Adam and Lilith – his first wife – were created in Genesis 1 and that Adam’s second wife, Eve, is created in Genesis 2.
Another ancient myth is that God created Adam and Lilith as twins joined together at the back. Lilith was proud and willful, and claimed that she was an equal to Adam because they were made from the same dust. She demanded equality with Adam, but Adam refused. And so, she left the Garden of Eden in anger. But then, Adam complained to God. So God sent three angels to bring Lilith back to Eden. Lilith cursed at the angels and refused to return to a submissive role with Adam in charge. When she refused to return to the garden, she was punished. And so God had to come up with plan B, which involved the creation of a more docile wife for Adam – Eve. (Perhaps some of you men have experienced a similar problem with your partners!)
There are numerous legends about Lilith in Jewish folklore. But her story spread into other cultures and you can find the little Lilith demon in ancient myths in:
Babylon Native American culture
Mexico European countries
Arab countries Asian countries
She has been associated with mythological characters such as the Queen of Sheba and Helen of Troy. In medieval Europe, she was proclaimed to be the wife, concubine, or grandmother of Satan. In fact, as late as the 18th century, it was common practice in many cultures to protect new mothers and their infants with amulets against Lilith. These amulets were like a charm with an inscription barring Lilith from the area around the bed. A sleeping baby who laughed while sleeping was thought to be evidence that Lilith was present.
Until the 7th century CE, Lilith was known as a dangerous, dark feminine power. In the Middle Ages, she took on new and even more sinister characteristics.
In the 1950’s, C.S. Lewis invoked Lilith’s image in the Chronicles of Narnia. The White Witch, one of the most sinister characters in his imaginary world, was Lilith’s daughter. She was determined to kill the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. She imposes a perpetual freeze on Narnia so that it is always winter and but never Christmas.
In the 1990’s, Lilith’s story was resurrected by the feminist movement. Instead of focusing on Lilith’s negative persona, they have given her new life as an independent and autonomous and brave woman.
Judith Plaskow Goldenberg, for example, wrote about Lilith, saying that after she leaves the garden she becomes lonely. She goes back to the garden, where Adam does everything he can to keep her out, inventing wildly untrue stories about his ex. One day Eve sees Lilith on the other side of the garden wall and recognizes that Lilith is simply another woman – not the she-devil her husband warned her about. Swinging on the branch of an apple tree, a curious Eve jumps over Eden’s walls and meets Lilith. The two women realize how much they have in common and begin a friendship – which is puzzling and frightening to Adam and to God!
Pamela Hadas composed a 12-part poem that looks at Lilith’s dilemma from the female vantage point. Adam and Lilith are cast as opposites who do not understand each other and cannot learn to appreciate each other’s strengths. Modern Jewish women have studied and written much contrasting Eve and Lilith. Eve is the mother of all children while Lilith destroys and takes life away from mothers and children. Eve is a child of the Divine while Lilith is a devil.
The retellings of Lilith’s story reflect each generation’s views of the feminine role. As we grow and change with the millennia, Lilith survives because she is the archetype for the changing role of woman. Lilith’s story has been written by men for centuries. Now, it is women looking deeply at themselves and their relationships, and writing about Lilith again.
Since 1976, Lilith magazine has charted Jewish women’s lives with exuberance, rigor, affection, subversion and style.
Deborah Grenn-Scott wrote, “One of the most omnipresent myths pervading our culture is that of the ‘good girl’ and the ‘bad girl’. Almost from birth, girls are faced with a constant dilemma as their personalities form: the paradox of choosing either to be “good” or “bad”. As Schaef, Steinem and many others have said, it is an artificial choice, a social construct which has been a no-win situation for both girls and women. Our only hope for wholeness lies in the integration of both our Lilith and Eve characteristics.”
I would add that men have similar choices – of being “weak” or being “strong”. In the same way that women have an artificial choice, this seems to me an artificial choice for men.
We can all learn from Lilith. Our wholeness as people of faith integrates our strengths and weaknesses, and finds a way to accept, grow, and know God’s love for the entirety of who we are.
“Lilith; Seductress, Heroine or Murderer?” www.biblicalarchaeology.org/people-in-the-bible/lilith
“What’s the story on Lilith, Adam’s ‘first wife’?” www.straightdope.com
Encyclopedia Mythica, “Lilith” www.pantheon.org/articles/l/lilith