Very little is known about Adam’s first wife. She appears in some Jewish folklore, such as the Alphabet of Sirach. She was created at the same time as Adam and molded from the same clay. Her name was Lilith. Sometimes, she is presented as a notorious demon. Other times, she is presented as a thief of newborn infants. Today, she is seen as a feminist icon. Despite being who many consider the first woman, Lilith is never fully mentioned in the Bible.
Lilith, meaning “the night”, has become a symbol of the emotional and spiritual aspects of darkness: sensuality, terror, and unbridled freedom. She serves as a symbol of freedom for feminists who no longer want to be “good girls”.
In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says
“It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.”
Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.
The Escaped Wife
In Genesis Rabbah, we encounter a brief midrash (an interpretive act, seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by plumbing the meaning of the words of the Torah) that claim that Adam had a first wife before Eve. This happens in the interpretation of the two creation stories in Genesis.
In the first creation story (Genesis 1), a man and a woman are created at the same time. While in the second creation story (Genesis 2), Adam creates Eve. This suggests that the first creation story is different from the second. In the first, Adam had a wife, made like him, from the earth. For some reason, that marriage did not work, so God made Adam a second wife named Eve.
The Death of Children
In the ninth or tenth century, a collection of legends titled The Alphabet of Ben Sira, spin an elaborate story in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife
When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth.God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.
As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: “Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled.” God sent three angels and said to them: “Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.
The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: “If you will go with us,well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.”
Lilith said to them:”My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.”
They said: “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them:”In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.” They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men….
- Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b
Some believe the story was conceived to explain the death of infants. While others are convinced that it is a tale to explain the sexual quarrels and unsuccessful angels.
Nevertheless, in the story, Lilith confronts the patriarchy by not only refusing a sexually submissive posture but also refusing the marriage altogether. She opts to become a demon rather than be under the authority of Adam. Lilith also flees to the Sea of Reeds: the same place where the Hebrews eventually went to get freedom from slavery.
In folk Judaism, Lilith is primarily identified as the stealer of babies. Numerous amulets were made for pregnant women and babies with the names of the angels mentioned in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to ward off Lilith. Such amulets would contain a circle with the names of Adam and Eve on the inside and Lilith on the outside. A red ribbon is also sometimes placed in a crib to ward off Lilith.
The Feminist Icon
The interpretation of Lilith has changed in modern times. Perhaps the best-known modern tales of Lilith is The Coming of Lilith by Judith Plaskow. In the feminist midrash, Lilith flees the garden because she is an “uppity woman”. She does not want to answer to either Adam or God. However, she misses female companionship and sneaks back into the garden of Eden to befriend Eve. Eve is informed that Lilith is a demon. However, once the two share stores, they become allies and search for knowledge together.
Lilith has become such a popular figure that whole enterprises (like the women’s music concert Lilith Fair and the Jewish feminist journal Lilith Magazine) are named after her.
Once a source of fear, Lilith has been transformed into an icon of freedom.
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