Lilith is first mentioned in ancient Babylonian texts as a class of winged female demons that attacks pregnant women and infants. From Babylonia, the legend of “the lilith” spread to ancient Anatolia, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Greece. In this guise—as a wilderness demoness—she appears in Isaiah 34:14 among a list of nocturnal creatures who will haunt the destroyed Kingdom of Edom. This is her only mention in the Bible, but her legend continued to grow in ancient Judaism.
During the Middle Ages, Jewish sources began to claim her as Adam’s bold and independent first wife. How did Lilith evolve from being a wilderness demoness to Adam’s first wife?
The story begins at the beginning—in Genesis 1. The creation of humans is described in Genesis 1 and again in Genesis 2. The first account is fairly straightforward: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
The second account describes how God formed man out of the dust of the ground and then created woman from the side (not rib) of man: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. … So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept. Then He (took) from his side, and closed up its place with flesh; and (from) the side that the Lord God had taken from the man, He made into a woman and brought her to the man” (Genesis 2:7, 21–22).
Thus, some might say that God created male mankind from the lowly earth; and female mankind from the more highly evolved male mankind; thus making female mankind an even higher elevated form of mankind. A dangerous thought.
In the post-Biblical period, some ancient Jewish scholars took the stance that Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:21–22 described two separate events, since it appears that woman is created differently in these accounts.
Professor Janet Howe Gaines explains this reasoning: Considering every word of the Bible to be accurate and sacred, commentators needed a midrash to explain the two different views in the Torah’s two creation narratives. God creates woman twice—once with man, once from man’s side; so there must have been two different women.
Since Adam names the second female Eve; Lilith was identified as the first female in order to complete the narrative. Thus, Genesis 1:27 describes the creation of Adam and a bold, independent, unnamed woman (Lilith).
The details of Lilith’s creation and relationship with Adam, are recounted in The Tales of Ben Sira, an apocryphal work from the tenth century C.E. Dan Ben-Amos explains that although this is the first extant text that records the full legend of Lilith, her story existed mush earlier:
In the post-Biblical period, rabbinic sages identify Lilith several times by the title “the First Eve,” indicating that her full story was well known in oral tradition. Finally, in the tenth century C.E. in Babylon, an anonymous writer who included in his book some other sexually explicit tales, spelled out the Lilith’s bold behavior.
The Tales of Ben Sira relates that God created Lilith from the earth, just as he had created Adam. They began fighting because Adam always wanted to be on top of Lilith; and would never agree to serve under Lilith.
Recognizing that Adam would not yield to her, Lilith “pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air” (The Tales of Ben Sira). Three angels Snvi, Snsvi and Smnglof were sent to pursue Lilith, but she refused to return with them to the Garden of Eden.
“‘Leave me!’ Lilith said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days’” (The Tales of Ben Sira).
As a compromise, she promised that if she saw the angels’ names or forms on amulets, she would leave the child alone. She also agreed that 100 of her children—demons—would die every day, but the rest would live.
If the first male had only agreed to serve under the first female half of the time (that is all she asked of him) these demon children would not live among us to this very day.
For a modern perspective of Lilith, see chapter 7 of my book; God, Sex and Kabbalah.