Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Isaiah 34: Who Is Lilith?

Much like the book of Obadiah, the 34th chapter of Isaiah is a condemnation of Edom, a neighbor nation of Israel that earns God's wrath after years of overt and covert military harassment. The chapter is a prophecy suggesting that the enemy nation will one day be annihilated as punishment for its sins against God's people.

"For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of vindication by Zion's cause.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned to pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch [...]
For generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it forever and ever." (34:8-10)

The rest of the chapter is filled with similar punishments: fire and brimstone, hell and high-water, drought and famine, death and destruction, cats and dogs living together. It's pandemonium.

But the punishments get to sound a little strange in verse 14: "Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, / goat-demons shall call to each other; / there too Lilith shall repose, / and find a place to rest." Wildcats, hyenas, goat-demons, and ... um, Lilith?

Modern readers may wonder what this poor girl did to deserve such bad company. Is the Isaiah author picking on the single ladies of Edom? Jackals and coyotes shall bathe in the blood of children; lions and vultures will scream across the sky; and Carol will be their next door neighbor?

Kidding ... but unlike Carol, Lilith is not tormented by the hellish landscape of post-apocalyptic Edom; she is part of it. For ancient Israelites, Lilith (or sometimes simply the lilit, in Hebrew) is an evil lady-demon who torments infants and young mothers. She is a succubus who, according to legend, kills babies and ruins pregnancies. And she is right at home in this God-forsaken wasteland.

But some know of Lilith as something different: Adam's first wife.

There are lots of stories floating around about Adam's wife before Eve, named Lilith. The nineties women's-empowerment rock spectacular "The Lilith Fair" took its name from her. But many do not know that she is never mentioned in Genesis. (The word "Lilith" appears only in Isaiah 34.)

Adam's Lilith is actually part of Jewish midrash--later rabbinic stories inspired by Biblical narratives. Louis Ginzberg, a famous 20th-century compiler of midrashim, tells the story of Lilith in his book, Legends of the Bible:

"To banish [Adam's] loneliness, Lilith was first given to Adam as wife. Like him she had been created out of the dust of the ground. But she remained with him only a short time, because she insisted upon enjoying full equality with her husband. She derived her rights from their identical origin [...] Lilith flew away from Adam, and vanished in the air. Adam complained before God that the wife He had given him had deserted him, and God sent forth three angels to capture her. They found her in the Red Sea, and they sought to make her go back with the threat that, unless she went, she would lose a hundred of her demon children daily by death. But Lilith preferred this punishment to living with Adam. She takes her revenge by injuring babies [...]"

Thus Lilith is banished, and God gives Adam Eve--a more submissive partner. And his first wife is free to harass toddlers ... and haunt Edom.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Josh,

    Neil Gaiman does a very interesting take on the Lilith myth one of his issues of The Sandman comics. In it, the story is told that Lilith was the first of THREE wives for Adam, only the third of which as Eve. The first was Lilith, the second wife was nameless (in the comic, it was said that Adam watched her form out of nothing, and seeing all the bones and organs grossed him out so he ran away from her) and the third wife was Eve. Gaiman claims that the basis for this story was from his rabbi, heard during lessons preparing for his bar mitzvah as a teen. I'll see if I can track the issue down for you.

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  2. Great stuff, keep it up. I've just moved from deist to nontheist (isn't as much of a fighting word, y'know?) and have a few years of study invested... Bart Ehrman and John Meier make up a good chunk of my reading. Anyway, just one thing about the piece -- the midrash literature is not a collection of bible-inspired "stories." Rather, these writings attempt to fill in some gaps through investigation (is this not close to the meaning of the root word?) and what you'd have to call lively, speculative thinking. You're right in the sense that some ended up as nothing more than stories, but the scholars producing the material thought they were filling in blanks, not making things up. Some of it's fabulous and insightful, some farfetched, but all is valuable. Like this site! Very good balance, not a lot of yelling, no name-calling -- downright reasonable. I'll be back!

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