In Jewish mythology Lilith is Adam’s first wife. Over the centuries she also became known as a succubus demon who strangled newborn babies. In recent years, feminist scholars have reclaimed the character of Lilith by interpreting her story in a more positive light.
This article discusses references to Lilith from the medieval period to modern times. To learn about depictions of Lilith in older texts see: Lilith in the Torah, Talmud and Midrash.
The Alphabet of Ben Sira
The oldest known text that explicitly refers to Lilith as Adam’s first wife is The Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous collection of midrashim from the medieval period. Here the author recounts a dispute that arose between Adam and Lilith. He wanted to be on top when they had sex, but she also wanted to be on top, arguing that they were created at the same time and hence were equal partners. When Adam refused to compromise, Lilith leaves him by uttering the name of God and flying to the Red Sea. God sends angels after her but they are unable to make her return to her husband.
“The three angels caught up with her in the [Red] Sea…They seized her and told her: ‘If you agree to come with us, come, and if not, we shall drown you in the sea.’ She answered: ‘Darlings, I know myself that God created me only to afflict babies with fatal disease when they are eight days old; I shall have permission to harm them from their birth to the eighth day and no longer; when it is a male baby; but when it is a female baby, I shall have permission for twelve days.’ The angels would not leave her alone, until she swore by God’s name that wherever she would see them or their names in an amulet, she would not possess the baby [bearing it]. They then left her immediately. This is [the story of] Lilith who afflicts babies with disease.” (Alphabet of Ben Sira, from "Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender" pg. 204.)
Not only does this text identify the “First Eve” as Lilith, but it draws upon myths about “lillu” demons that prayed upon women and children. By the 7th century women were reciting incantations against Lilith to protect themselves and their babies during childbirth. It also became common practice to inscribe incantations on bowls and bury them upside down inside a house. People who ascribed to such superstitions thought that the bowl would capture Lilith if she attempted to enter their home.
Perhaps because of her association with the demonic, some medieval texts identify Lilith as the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, by the early 1200’s works of art began to portray the serpent as a snake or reptile with a woman’s torso. Perhaps the best-known example of this is Michelangelo’s portrayal of Lilith on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in a painting called “The Temptation of Adam and Eve.” Here a female serpent is shown wrapped around the Tree of Knowledge, which some have interpreted as a representation of Lilith tempting Adam and Eve.
Feminist Reclaiming of Lilith
In modern times feminist scholars have reclaimed the character of Lilith. Instead of a demonic female they see a strong woman who not only sees herself as man’s equal but refuses to accept anything other than equality. In “The Lilith Question,” Aviva Cantor writes:
“Her strength of character and commitment of self is inspiring. For independence and freedom from tyranny she is prepared to forsake the economic security of the Garden of Eden and to accept loneliness and exclusion from society… Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimization.”
According to feminist readers Lilith is a role model for sexual and personal independence. They point out that Lilith alone knew the Ineffable Name of God, which she used to escape the Garden and her uncompromising husband. And if she was the proverbial serpent in the Garden of Eden, her intent was to free Eve with the power of speech, knowledge and strength of will. Indeed Lilith has become such a potent feminist symbol that the magazine “Lilith” was named after her.
- Baskin, Judith. "Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature." University Press of New England: Hanover, 2002.
- Kvam, Krisen E. etal. "Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender." Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1999
- Heschel, Susan etal. “On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader.” Schocken Books: New York, 1983.