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Religious riddles

The first wife of Adam, Lilith: demoness or the first feminist?

Lilith is first mentioned in ancient Babylonian texts as a winged demon attacking pregnant women and infants. From Babylon, the legend of Lilith spread to ancient Anatolia, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Greece. In this demonic form, she appears in the book of the prophet Isaiah 34:14 among a list of nocturnal creatures that will haunt the ruined kingdom of Edom.

This is her only mention in the Bible, but the legend continued to grow in ancient Judaism. In the Middle Ages, Jewish sources began asserting that she was Adam’s bold and independent first wife. But how did Lilith transform from a desert demoness into Adam’s first wife?

The origin of Lilith’s story, Adam’s first wife

This story begins at the very beginning of the Bible. The creation of humans is described in Genesis 1 and again in Genesis 2. The first account is quite straightforward:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

The second account describes how God created man from the dust of the ground and then made woman from the side (not the rib) of the man:

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul… And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.” (Genesis 2:7, 21-22)

In the post-biblical period, some ancient Jewish scholars believed that Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:7, 21-22 described two different events, as the creation of woman is described differently in these two stories.

Was Lilith Adam’s first wife?

In an article titled “Lilith” in the October 2001 issue of the “Biblical Review,” Professor Janet Howe Gaines explained this reasoning:

“Taking every word of the Bible as accurate and sacred, commentators needed a midrash (expansive interpretation) to explain the two different views in the Torah’s two creation narratives. God created woman twice – once with man and once from man; therefore, there had to be two different women.”

Since Adam named the second woman Eve, Lilith was identified as the first woman to complete the narrative. Thus, Genesis 1:27 describes the creation of Adam and the independent, strong, and nameless woman who later became known as Lilith.

Details of Lilith’s creation and her relationship with Adam are described in the “Alphabet of Ben Sira,” an apocryphal work from the 10th century CE. Folklorist Dan Ben-Amos explains that while this is the first surviving text in which the complete legend of Lilith is recorded, her story existed much earlier in oral traditions.

In the post-biblical period, rabbinic sages mentioned Lilith several times, but not by name, calling her the “first Eve,” indicating that her full story was well-known in oral traditions.

How Lilith differed from Eve

In an anonymous medieval work titled “Alphabet of Ben Sira,” it is narrated that God created Lilith from the dust of the earth, just like Adam. They immediately began quarreling because Adam always wanted to be superior to Lilith and refused to submit to her.

Realizing that Adam wouldn’t yield, Lilith “pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew off into the air” (taken from the “Alphabet of Ben Sira”). Three angels, Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof (Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof), were sent to retrieve Lilith, but she adamantly refused to return with them to the Garden of Eden.

Lilith’s determination is evident in her words: “Leave me!” she said. “I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth (until circumcision on the eighth day protects him), and if female, for twenty days” (Quoted from the “Alphabet of Ben Sira”).

As a compromise, Lilith promised that if she saw the names or forms of angels on amulets, she would leave the child alone. Lilith also agreed that 100 of her children—demons—would die every day, but she insisted that the rest would live.

If the first man had agreed to serve under the leadership of the first woman for only half the time (which was all she asked of him), Lilith would have become Eve:

“Better to live outside the garden with Eve than inside it without her. Blessed be the One who united us and taught me the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her soul!”

“Wherever she was, there was Eden,” wrote Mark Twain.

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