By Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
Jewish folklore is a strange, interesting topic, and Lilith is perhaps the best example of its unusual flavor. Who Lilith is, what texts mention her, and her significance as a literary figure take us into interesting questions about how we understand Judaism and Christianity. Here are the basic things you should know about Lilith.
Who Is Lillith?
The Hebrew word “lilith” appears in Isaiah 34:14, a prophecy against the kingdom of Edom. The King James Bible translates the term as “screech owl”: “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.”
Some scholars have described “lilith” as meaning “night-monster,” although different translations give different explanations for the terms they use.
After the books located in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (The Torah, the Wisdom Literature books, etc.), a variety of other Jewish books on religion were written. Some of these books are considered pseudepigrapha, some are folklore, and some are commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.
One of the folklore books, the medieval Alphabet of ben Sirach gives an alternate version of the story of Adam and Eve. In this version, God decides it is bad for Adam to be alone, so he makes a woman named Lilith. Lilith and Adam have an argument about their sexual relations, and Lilith leaves Adam. God decrees that if Lilith does not return, 100 of her children will die every day, and sends three angels to bring Lilith back. The three angels find Lilith and try to persuade her, but Lilith is not dissuaded. She declares that she will have control of other people’s children: “if they are boys, from birth to day eight I will have power over them; if they are girls, from birth to day twenty.”
Eventually, a kind of compromise is reached: Lilith will not have control over infants if the infants have their names or images written on amulets. She also lives with the fact that 100 of her children will die every day. The ben Sirach story ends on this note:
“Therefore, a hundred of the demons die every day, and therefore, we write the names [of the three angels] on amulets of young children. When Lilith sees them, she remembers her oath, and the child is [protected and] healed.”
This source tells a few important things about Lilith. The fact that she has thousands of children indicates she is promiscuous, and the fact her dying children are described as demons indicates she mates with monsters or demons. The fact that the story ends highlighting why infants must have inscribed amulets suggests that the writer is using Lilith as a way to explain why infants have those items. This affirms that Lilith is a folklore figure to explain why something exists – like how Paul Bunyan dragging his ax is a folklore explanation for the Grand Canyon.
Other Jewish sources also refer to Lilith. The Gemerah section of the Babylonian Talmud, a rabbinic commentary on Judaism, mentions Lilith various times, often depicting her as the worst example of a rebellious woman or embodying problematic female traits. This image is maintained in other sources, with Lilith often described as having children with monsters, manipulating children, and associated with disease and sexual immorality.
Outside Jewish folklore and religious literature, Lilith appears as a character in various novels, movies, and other entertainment. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman has a chapter where Cain and Abel tell the story of Lilith to a child who’s entered a fantasy realm.
For American Christians, the most famous reference may be C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In chapter 8, when the Pevensie children are speaking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, they learn that a human must rule Narnia, and while she claims to be human, the White Witch is not at all human. Mr. Beaver explains that on one side of her family, the White Witch comes from “your father Adam’s first wife, her they called Lilith.”
Why Isn't Lilith in the Bible?
Assuming that Isaiah 34’s word “Lilith” isn’t connected to the character Lilith, there are no references to Lilith in the Bible. The simple answer to why the Bible doesn’t feature Lilith is that she doesn’t appear in the Book of Genesis, which is the Bible’s account of the earth’s creation and of Adam and Eve. Scholars have debated the extent to which Genesis’ creation account is allegorical. However, conservative theologians have maintained that Adam and Eve were real people and that the story of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden is a historical account.
In contrast to Adam and Eve, Lilith is a folklore character added later. The Babylonian Talmud wasn’t written until 300-600 AD, and scholars estimate The Alphabet of ben Sirach was written at the earliest in 700 AD. Some scholars have argued that Lilith appears in, or is informed by Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and folklore, such as Lilu, an Akkadian word for a spirit that has demonic associations. Regardless of whether Lilith appears in these stories, she has the qualities of a mythological character, rather than a historical person.
Why Is Lilith Controversial?
On one level, Lilith is controversial because she’s a folklore character from a folklore take on the creation story from Genesis. Her story takes us directly into debates about mythology versus history, sacred texts, and non-sacred additions. This can become quite heated discussions, especially when it comes to debating the Bible’s accuracy.
On another level, Lilith is controversial because her story is about sexual activity and female roles in marriage and family. In the ben Sirach story, Lilith leaves Adam because she desires something she associates with sexual equality, and in the story, God punishes her by having her lose children. The writer of ben Sirach seems to see Lilith as a willful wife who wants to be in charge, refuses to submit, and becomes a “whore of Babylon” figure. Many of us today wouldn’t see the thing Lilith wanted as a problem of equality, just a private matter to be worked out between her and Adam. Thus, the story shows a different cultural understanding of female agency and sexual equality, which are intimate subjects no matter what view you take.
Why Should We Know about Lilith?
While Lilith may be most important in the context of folklore studies, there are at least two important reasons why we should know about her.
First, we need to affirm that there is a difference between the original story and folklore changes that come later. Understanding why Lilith is fictional helps us affirm that even if we think there are symbolic elements in Genesis, it has a core of truth that is not found in fictional alternate histories. Recognizing the difference between Genesis and later traditions is important if we want to be biblically literate Christians who appreciate the difference between a holy text, non-sacred additions, commentaries, and so forth.
Second, Lilith is part of a larger debate about Abrahamic religions versus Paganism or Neo-paganism. Scholars know that Christianity and Judaism both have positive examples of female leadership, but on the popular level, people often characterize Abrahamic religions with controlling women. In that context, people sometimes argue that paganism or heretical Christian movements are better because they present different gender roles—female goddesses, sexual liberation, and so forth. Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code plays on this perceived contrast, with certain characters arguing that Gnosticism is female-affirming and that traditional Christianity is sexist. Lilith initially seems like a perfect example of this idea, a woman desiring sexual equality who gets punished for it. Looking at the story in context (the fact Lilith bears demon children and is promiscuous) shows she’s not such a clean-cut character. The same can be said of many female goddesses in pagan religions (such as Kali, the Hindu goddess of love and death). Female mythological and folklore characters are more complex than many realize. Understanding Lilith in all her complexity helps us answer and avoid easy stereotypes about paganism and Christianity.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/OnPhotoUa
G. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.