Lilith in the Bible and Jewish Folklore

Anyone who has read through Isaiah has come across the hauntingly beautiful poetry of Isaiah 34. This apocalyptic poem, which scholars now believe was a late addition to the book, appears to describe the destruction of Edom by the Nabateans in the 5th century BCE¹.

Verses 12 through 16 describe the desolation of the land:

The satyrs will make their home there,
its nobles will be no more,
kings will not be proclaimed there,
all its princes will be brought to nothing.

Thorns will grow in the palaces there,
thistles and nettles in its fortresses,
it will be a lair for jackals,
a lodging for ostriches.

Wild cats will meet hyenas there,
the satyrs will call to each other,
there too will Lilith take cover
seeking rest.

The viper will nest and lay eggs there,
will brood and hatch its eggs;
kites will gather there
and make it their meeting place.

(Isaiah 34:12–16, Jerusalem Bible)

Along with this bestiary of wildlife, we encounter some interesting mythical creatures — satyrs and Lilith. Let’s take a closer look at the latter.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that this is not the only appearance of Lilith in Jewish scriptures. She appears in an apocryphal work found at Qumran, known as Song for a Sage or the less descriptive 4Q510. The context is a little more violent, with imagery related to destruction and desolation:

And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendor so as to frighten and to te[rrify] all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers, and [desert dwellers…] and those which fall upon men without warning to lead them astray from a spirit of understanding and to make their heart and their […] desolate during the present dominion of wickedness…

Many people who are casually familiar with the name “Lilith” have probably heard the Medieval tales about her as Adam’s original wife — a legend first attested to in the eighth-century Alphabet of Ben Sira. In this text, Ben Sira explains to Nebuchadnezzar how Lilith was the first woman created for Adam, but that she had refused to submit to him. After a brief fight, she left Adam and flew away, becoming a demon queen who preys on men and children to this day. The Zohar, a Jewish Kaballistic work from the late 13th century, developed the origins of Lilith further and cast her as an immortal seductress who had even attempted to seduce King Solomon as the Queen of Sheba.

Of course, this Medieval assimilation of Lilith to stories from the Bible about Adam and Solomon is not at all what the author of Isaiah 34 had in mind. Here, we are dealing with a much older Mesopotamian myth.

Adam, Eve, and Lilith (in the middle) depicted at Notre Dame Cathedral

Adam, Eve, and Lilith (in the middle) depicted at Notre Dame Cathedral

Lilith appears frequently in ancient Assyrian and Babylonian incantations as one of a trio of spirits or lesser deities: Lilu, Lilith, and Ardat Lilith.² The first is described as being male and the other two as female. They are associated with the wind, and they are believed to seduce adults and poison children. A protective amulet from Syria, dated to the seventh or eighth century BCE, reads:

O you who fly in (the) darkened room(s),
Be off with you this instant, this instant, Lilith.
Thief, breaker of bones.³

The Jews came into contact with Babylonian religion and mythology about Lilith in the centuries following the Babylonian conquest. During this period, a major Jewish community apparently became established in Nippur, a city on the Euphrates southeast of Babylon. Excavations conducted in 1893 revealed some 800 tablets — the records of a local banking family — dating to the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II (mid-to-late 5th century).⁴ Some eight percent of the names in those records are Jewish,⁵ and 28 of the 100 or so settlements around Nippur were Jewish.⁶

Jewish records from this time are almost nonexistent, but a large number of incantation bowls from the fourth to sixth centuries CE have been excavated from Nippur. These bowls, written in Aramaic, Mandean and Syriac by Jews and Mandeans, would be kept in people’s homes to ward off Lilith and Lilu as well as other evil spirits derived from the Babylonian religion. This can be seen as an example of how “the religion of yesterday becomes the superstition of today”, as J.A. Montgomery put it. “The supreme declaration of Second Isaiah that the gods are naught and nothing, unfortunately was not sustained, and even onetime beneficent gods, when banished, returned as demons to vex the faithful.”⁷

Jewish incantation bowl from Nippur with depiction of Lilith

Jewish incantation bowl from Nippur with depiction of Lilith

The usage of Lilith in Isaiah 34 — as a nature spirit that haunts ruins and roams the uninhabited wilderness — might lie somewhere between its earlier stage as a Babylonian wind deity and its later stage as a mischievous demon that would haunt people’s homes and oppress them.

References:

1. Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 1–39: With an Introduction to Prophetic Literature, 1996, p. 444.

2. Examples can be found in C. Fossey, La Magie Assyrienne, Paris: 1902.

3. Janet Howe Gaines, “Lilith: Seductress, Heroine or Murderer?”, Bible History Daily, Sept. 4 2012, retrieved Feb. 14, 2014.

4. Michael David Coogan, “Jews at Nippur in the Fifth Century B.C.”, The Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 37, p. 6.

5. W.D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 1: The Persian Period, p. 220.

6. R. Zadok, “Nippur in the Achaemenid Period: Geographical and Ethnical Aspects” (dissertation, Hebrew University, 1974), pp. xiii, xxi, xxxiii. Cited in Davies and Finkelstein p. 346.

7. James A. Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur, p. 70.

2 thoughts on “Lilith in the Bible and Jewish Folklore

  1. Paul, thanks for this post and the exploration of the topic. I was pleased to reference it at TheoFantastique where there is an obvious overlap in my interests in religion and monsters, including biblical ones.

    Like

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