The name "Lilith" isn't even in the Bible, but according to Jewish mythology, she was Adam's first wife. This myth has intertwined ancient Mesopotamian and Jewish beliefs for thousands of years. The traditional description of Lilith blends ancient demonic lore with Biblical cosmology in a way that often defies gender norms, leading to her portrayal as a fearsome night hag.
The depiction of Lilith as an ungodly seductress fails to acknowledge her nuanced role in the Jewish faith and Mesopotamian traditions. To understand Lilith's importance, it helps to know more about her origins and the role she has played throughout history.
She Was Adam's First Wife
Lilith's role as Adam's first wife became part of the Jewish tradition when she was mentioned in a midrash, a text that interprets and explains Hebrew scriptures. The midrash elaborated on inconsistencies in the Book of Genesis: In Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, but then Genesis 2 establishes Eve as the product of Adam's rib. To reconcile these diverging accounts, there must have been another woman in Adam's life.
Enter: Lilith. She was depicted as Adam's first wife in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a work that became part of Jewish tradition sometime around the year 1000 CE. According to this interpretation, their marriage eventually failed and she left, prompting God to create Eve.
Her Origins Are In Mesopotamian Mythology
Lilith was likely derived from the ancient Sumerian myth of lilitu - the demon spirits of men and women who died young. Lilith's more horrific aspects can be traced back to Lamashtu, the daughter of the Mesopotamian sky god Anu. Lamashtu was said to slay children and feast on men.
Lilith also appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh, on a tablet dated to roughly 2000 BCE. There she is a demon that Gilgamesh forces to flee and take refuge in a desolate area, an element that remains consistent in her tale over time.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Associate Her With Other Demons
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a group of some 800 texts discovered in the 1940s and 1950s on the West Bank near the Dead Sea, mention Lilith. The scrolls include Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek prayers, legal documents, biblical writings, and apocryphal works.
Lilith is referred to in the "Song for a Sage," which was possibly a hymn used during exorcisms:
And I, the Sage, sound the majesty of His beauty to terrify and confound all the spirits of destroying angels and the bastard spirits, the demons, Lilith... and those that strike suddenly, to lead astray the spirit of understanding, and to make desolate their heart.
During The Middle Ages, She Received A Backstory
The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a work produced sometime between the eighth and 10th centuries CE, offers a more in-depth explanation of what happened between Adam and Lilith. Other accounts describe Adam having a wife before Eve, but the Alphabet gives her a name and describes their falling-out.
By providing background on Lilith, Jewish scholars not only clarified the Book of Genesis, but also explained how and why Lilith had been the target of harsh treatment for centuries.