Was Lilith Adam’s Wife Before Eve?


Perhaps you’ve read this claim on the internet or a friend or loved one has pulled you aside to tell you the troubling news: the Bible is incorrect and is hiding the truth about Adam and Eve. Eve, the submissive shrinking violet, was Adam’s second wife, created from his rib as described in Genesis 2:21-22. But his first wife, an independent woman named Lilith who was created as his equal in Genesis 1:27, was too independent for him and so he and God banished her, and the authors of Genesis—and subsequent Jewish believers—redacted the full story from the “official” account.  

The above description is certainly the feeling on the ground. There is a level of paranoia when it comes to biblical accounts. Perhaps it is the cynicism of the age, but anything passed down is viewed with suspicion and the underlying feeling that “they” (whoever “they” happen to be) are hiding something from “us.” In this case, though, the historical account is quite simple to trace.  

So, long story short: No, Lilith was not Adam’s first wife. And few seriously thought that until the 1970s in the aftermath of the feminist movement. Let’s dive in. 

Who is making the claim that Lilith was Adam’s first wife? 

There are two groups of people making this claim. The first, and those who brought the idea to the wider mainstream, is Jewish feminists, and then non-Jewish feminists after them. But they do not believe the author of Genesis removed Lilith from the Genesis account. More on that in a bit.  

The other group of people are the more conspiracy-minded who also talk about “hidden gospels” or unearthed tombs that allegedly hold Jesus’s body inside. They have taken what feminist authors created as an openly historically-revisionist account, traced it back to its medieval origins, and understood it to be a truth concealed by Jewish and Christian authorities. This is not supported by any of the historical evidence. It is that historical evidence which we now turn to.  

Who was Lilith, really?

 The word “Lilith” is only mentioned once in the Hebrew bible, in Isaiah 34:14. Here, the Hebrew word lilit is often translated as some sort of bird of prey, such as a “screech owl” (for the sake of clarity, I will use the transliterated Lilith from here on out). The context in this passage is a prophecy of the future destruction of Edom. Lilith and other merciless animals are envisioned stalking the desolate wasteland Edom will become. The whole scene portrays utter desperation and desolation. For this reason, some scholars believe lilith is not the proper name of an individual, but merely a type of animal. However, cultural context points to lilith being a type of demon. And note that there is no connection here to Adam, Eve, or the creation story. 

The term lilith, though often mistakenly thought to derive from the Hebrew word laylah, meaning “night” (which is why it is often translated as “night creature” or “night bird”), was actually a word borrowed from Sumerian initially and then Akkadian contexts that referred to a class of female spirit demons, as Stephen De Young has pointed out. This is witnessed not only in ancient texts, such as the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld” (written during the time of Abraham, and not to be confused with the more famous “Epic of Gilgamesh”), but also incantation bowls from ancient Mesopotamia which were meant to keep these demons away, especially from children whom they were thought to attack in and out of the womb. There is a lot of mythology associated with these types of demons, and at some point, that mythology even got combined with the tales of the Babylonian demon spirit known as Lamashtu. Overall, though, Andrew Stephen Damick is right to say they could be classified as a type of “anti-fertility demon.” They were known especially for seducing men (right before killing them) to create more demons who would then stalk the land to prey on the unborn and those newly born. 

At this point, lilith is not an individual or a human being, but merely a type of malevolent “female” spiritual being (there were also “male” demons). It would take at least 1,000-2,000 years after the writing of the Book of Genesis for Lilith to be reimagined as an individual. 

Why do some claim Lilith was Adam’s wife? 

At some point, the demon lilith mythology entered into Jewish folklore and, while never officially recognized as orthodox Jewish dogma, became a widespread belief. Children were said to be protected from lilith by amulets placed over them. This is why this class of demons eventually shows up in some early medieval Jewish writings.  

Rabbi Menachem Levine explains that lilith appears several times in the Babylonian Talmud (c. AD 500) but is never referred to as Adam’s wife. Rather, there are warnings given about her and how to protect oneself from her. This is still very much the seducing, child-killing demon lilith of the incantation bowls. However, as German-born Israeli historian Gershom Scholem has suggested, this was a mythology retroactively applied to explain a custom that was already widespread. 

Another medieval Jewish writing, the Zohar, written in thirteenth-century Spain from the mystical Kabbalist school of thought, reimagines Lilith as an “Eve” before Eve, but not a human person. She was still an impure spirit, but one who had tried to cling to and tempt Adam at his creation. According to Rabbi Levine, the Kabbalist Arizal (1534-1572) summarized Lilith’s person and purpose as “the ruination of the world.”  

In between the writing of the Babylonian Talmud and the Zohar, however, is The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a ninth-century writing where Lilith is first seen as an individual with ties to Adam and the creation story. In this story, Lilith is the first-created woman who refused to “lie below” Adam because they were created as equals. According to Rabbi Levine, this work—which was never an authoritative or accepted work within rabbinical Judaism, though some mystical strands may have incorporated elements of it—is considered by some an “impious digest of risqué folktales or an anti-rabbinic satire” or perhaps a polemical attack on some other “dissident movement” within Judaism.  

In other words, The Alphabet of Ben Sira is likely a work written against Jewish belief, and/or a Jewish writing meant to ridicule untraditional Jewish groups. Furthermore, it was written much too late after the Genesis account to be taken seriously as a story that rivals the elder account’s integrity. Interestingly, those pushing to take this medieval account seriously would typically discount anything religious from the medieval period. This seems to be, then, a clear case of confirmation bias. 

How the Lilith Myth went mainstream 

Historical trends like these are hard to trace, but it seems the idea of Lilith as Adam’s original wife went mainstream in 1808 with Goethe’s Faust. Lilith is referred to as “Adam’s wife, his first,” and the “Pretty Witch” who seduces men until they are close enough to trap in her “dangerous hair.”  

Most of us know about Lilith today, though, through the disseminated ideas of the Feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and especially the work of Judith Plaskow and Lilly Rivlin. Plaskow, considered the first Jewish Feminist theologian, wrote a midrash about Lilith in 1972. In this story, God and Adam (”both being men”) are the overbearing baddies. Lilith and Eve are the liberated, and liberating, heroines. The end of the story is telling: “And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.” 

Another influential figure in popularizing the new Lilith was Lilly Rivlin. Her famous 1972 essay reimagined Lilith as a modern, independent woman freeing herself from the shackles of a male-dominated society. Soon after the work of Rivlin and Plaskow, in 1976, the feminist magazine Lilith was founded. The growing popularity of Lilith even influenced the 1990s music fest, Lilith Fair.  

The feminist movement’s usage of Lilith is much like modern secular humanist’s championing of Satan. They do so not believing in the actual figure but using the figure as an example of a historic struggle against religious moral authority, or patriarchy, or both. For modern-day “Satanists,” most of whom are atheists, Satan is the archetype of a scapegoated minority. For the feminist movement, Lilith—who is not believed to be a real person—is representative of many women who have been historically held down and pushed around by the patriarchy and “toxic masculinity”.  

Let me illustrate the final point. On the website of the liberal-minded Jewish Women’s Archive, Ithaca College professor Rebecca Lesses’ description of Lilith admits that the feminist version of the Lilith story (and by implication, the conspiracy theory version, as well) was not hidden knowledge, but a developed and revisionist story to make a modern cultural statement about rejecting traditional religious dogmas and living with absolute freedom of choice. She writes a summary of essentially what has been explained above before saying, “Jewish feminists, seizing upon her assertion of equality [from Lilith’s medieval appearance in The Alphabet of Ben Sira], have reclaimed Lilith as a symbol of autonomy, independence, and sexual liberation.” Likewise, in the “Afterword” of her co-edited 1998 volume Which Lilith?, Lilly Rivlin writes, “In the late twentieth century, self-sufficient women, inspired by the women’s movement, have adopted the Lilith myth as their own. They have transformed her into a female symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control over one’s own destiny” (emphasis mine).  

The Heart of the Matter

Today Lilith is a popular figure in many strands of the feminist movement, from academia to feminist activism to neo-pagan and the Wiccan quasi-religious movements. Regardless of the merit of the feminists’ assertions, we should now see that the Lilith myth was not a silenced bit of history that the authors or editors of the Bible rejected or redacted, but a much later creation, and one that is apparently still being created. And for those saddened to hear that Lilith is not original to the Bible, have no fear! It is full of other strong heroines, from Ruth and Queen Esther to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Lydia. 

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