Lilith as Adam’s First Wife

Scholars are not certain where the character of Lilith comes from, though many believe she was inspired by Sumerian myths about female vampires called “Lillu” or Mesopotamian myths about succubae (female night demons) called “lilin.” Lilith is mentioned four times in the Babylonian Talmud, but it is not until the Alphabet of Ben Sira (c. 800s to 900s) that the character of Lilith is associated with the first version of Creation. In this medieval text, Ben Sira names Lilith as Adam’s first wife and presents a full account of her story.

According to the Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith was Adam’s first wife but the couple fought all the time. They didn’t see eye-to-eye on matters of sex because Adam always wanted to be on top while Lilith also wanted a turn in the dominant sexual position. When they could not agree, Lilith decided to leave Adam. She uttered God’s name and flew into the air, leaving Adam alone in the Garden of Eden. God sent three angels after her and commanded them to bring her back to her husband by force if she would not come willingly. But when the angels found her by the Red Sea they were unable to convince her to return and could not force her to obey them.  Eventually a strange deal is struck, wherein Lilith promised not to harm newborn children if they are protected by an amulet with the names of the three angels written on it:

“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.)

The Alphabet of Ben Sira appears to combine legends of female demons with the idea of the ‘first Eve.’ What results is a story about Lilith, an assertive wife who rebelled against God and husband, was replaced by another woman, and was demonized in Jewish folklore as a dangerous killer of babies.

Later legends also characterize her as a beautiful woman who seduces men or copulates with them in their sleep (a succubus), then spawns demon children. According to some accounts, Lilith is the Queen of Demons.

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