According to Jewish mythology, Lilith was Adam’s wife before Eve. Over the centuries she also became known as a succubus demon who copulated with men during their sleep and strangled newborn babies. In recent years the feminist movement has reclaimed her character by re-interpreting the patriarchal texts that portray her as a dangerous female demon in a more positive light.
This article discusses the character of Lilith in the Bible, Talmud and Midrash. For information about Lilith in Medieval and feminist writings visit: Lilith, from the Medieval Period to Modern Feminist Texts.
Lilith in the Bible
The legend of Lilith has its roots in the biblical book of Genesis, where two contradictory versions of Creation eventually led to the concept of a “first Eve.”
The first Creation account appears in Genesis 1 and describes the simultaneous creation of both male and female human beings after all of the plants and animals have already been placed in the Garden of Eden. In this version man and woman are portrayed as equals and are both the pinnacle of God’s Creation.
The second Creation story appears in Genesis 2. Here man is created first and placed in the Garden of Eden to tend it. When God sees that he is lonely all the animals are made as possible companions for him. Finally the first woman (Eve) is created after Adam rejects all of the animals as partners. Hence, in this account man is created first and woman is created last.
These obvious contradictions presented a problem for the ancient rabbis who believed that the Torah was the written word of God and therefore it could not contradict itself. They therefore interpreted Genesis 1 so that it did not contradict Genesis 2, coming up with ideas such as the androgyne and a "First Eve" in the process. According to the theory of a "First Eve," Genesis 1 refers to Adam’s first wife, while Genesis 2 refers to Eve, who was Adam’s second wife. Learn more about the two versions of Creation and how they relate to Lilith in: Where Does the Legend of Lilith Come From?
Eventually this idea of a “First Eve” was combined with legends of female “lillu” demons, who were believed to stalk men in their sleep and prey upon women and children. However, the only explicit reference to a “Lilith” in the Bible appears in Isaiah 34:14, which reads: “The wild cat shall meet with the jackals, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow, yea, Lilith shall repose there and find her a place of rest.”
Lilith in the Talmud and in Midrash
Lilith is mentioned four times in the Babylonian Talmud, though in each of these cases she is not referred to as Adam’s wife. BT Niddah 24b discusses her in relation to abnormal fetuses and uncleanness, saying: “If an abortion had the likeness of Lilith its mother is unclean by reason of the birth, for it is a child, but it has wings.” Here we learn that the rabbis believed Lilith had wings and that she could influence the outcome of a pregnancy.
BT Shabbat 151b also discusses Lilith, warning that a man should not sleep alone in a house lest Lilith fall upon him in his sleep. According to this and other texts, Lilith is a female succubus not unlike the lillu demons referenced above. The rabbis believed she was responsible for nocturnal emissions while a man was sleeping and that Lilith used the semen she collected to give birth to hundreds of demon babies. Lilith also appears in Baba Batra 73a-b, where a sighting of her son is described, and in Erubin 100b, where the rabbis discuss Lilith’s long hair in relation to Eve.
Glimpses of Lilith’s eventual association with the “First Eve” can be seen in Genesis Rabbah 18:4, a collection of midrashim about the book of Genesis. Here the rabbis describe the “First Eve” as a “golden bell” that troubles them in the night. “'A golden bell'… it is she who troubled me all night...Why do not all other dreams exhaust a man, yet this [a dream of intimacy takes place] does exhaust a man. Because from the very beginning of her creation she was but in a dream.”
Over the centuries the association between the “First Eve” and Lilith led to Lilith’s assuming the role of Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore. Learn more about the development of Lilith’s legend in: Lilith, from the Medieval Period to Modern Feminist Texts.
- 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.