Lilith Revisited

The men out at the prison always ask me crazy questions. The prison is a cauldron for very sort of weird idea, crack pot theory or heresy when it comes to the bible.

The other day one of the men asked me if I'd ever heard of Lilith. Apparently a controversy was raging about her among the prisoners, some arguing for her existence and some disputing her existence.

I've written about Lilith before. The source of the legend, I shared with the inmate asking me the question, are the inconsistencies in what appear to be two different creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis.

The first chapters of Genesis appear to be written by two different authors, called the Elohist and the Yahwist.

The Elohist uses the word Elohim to refer to God. Elohim is typically translated "God" in English bibles. So when we read "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" the Elohist is writing.

The Yahwist, by contrast, uses the name YHWH to refer to the Deity. In many English translations YHWH is translated LORD, all caps.

The Elohist story of creation ends in Genesis 2.2. The Yahwist story of creation starts at Genesis 2.3. You can see both the beginning and the ending of the two accounts as well as the switch from "God" to "LORD" in referring to the Creator:

Genesis 2.1-4
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
--End of Elohist Creation Story--

--Start of Yahwist Creation Story--
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens...
It is believed that the two stories were edited together by a third author (a "redactor") working with both manuscripts.

In some ways the two stories complement and supplement each other. But there are differences that have preoccupied scholars. These were the differences the men were debating out at the prison. Specifically, the Elohist and the Yahwist tell different creation stories concerning Adam and Eve:
Elohist Version of Adam & Eve (Genesis 1.26-27):
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Yahwist Version of Adam & Eve (Genesis 2.7-8, 15-23):
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed...

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
Most readers of the bible read the first account from the Elohist--"in the image of God he created them / male and female he created them"--as an abbreviated summary of the longer, and admittedly much weirder, account of the Yahwist, where God parades all the animals before Adam suggesting he pick a mate from them. But most scholars take these to be two different stories.

Incidentally, egalitarians like the Elohist version best where man and woman are created at the same time as equals. By contrast, hierarchical complementarians like the Yahwist version better with the ordered creation of man before woman and woman made from man's rib. We'll revisit this contrast in a second. 

Again, while many Christians read these texts as being the same story (one compressed, the other more detailed) there is a Jewish tradition where these are read as two stories about two different events--the story of Adam's first wife and the story of Adam's second wife.

The two stories run like this. The first, Elohist account is the story of the creation of Adam and his first wife. This wife then goes missing from the story and Adam finds himself alone. Finding this unacceptable, God makes a second wife for Adam. This is the Yahwist story, the story of making Eve from Adam's rib so she will stick with Adam (unlike the missing first wife).

So who was Adam's first wife? And where did she go?

That's the legend of Lilith.

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. Her name comes from one of the Akkadian words (which is uncertain) lilatu ("night") or lilu ("demon" or "phantom"). As the story goes, Lilith felt herself to be Adam's equal (as the Elohist seems to suggest). Eventually, however, Lilith refused to submit to Adam, wanting to be the dominant one. Adam, with the help of God, resists this usurpation. In response Lilith either leaves or is cast out of Eden leaving Adam alone and in need of a second, more submissive wife. Enter Eve.

Lilith isn't mentioned in Genesis, but you can find her name in the bible. In the middle of a discussion about the destruction of Edom we read in Isaiah 34.14 (NRSV):
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
and find a place to rest.
Anyway, out at the prison I was asked to weigh in on the Lilith controversy. They wanted a yes or no answer from me. Instead I started talking about the the Elohist and the Yahwist accounts and how the Lilith legend was likely invented to reconcile the inconsistencies of the two creation stories.

I don't want to weigh in on Lilith's existence, I said, but I do think her legend illustrates something about how we read and interpret the bible. Specifically, sometimes the bible is just inconsistent. But that inconsistency is scary to us. So we create some interpretation--like the Lilith legend--to make the inconsistency go away.

Problem solved it seems. But in our fear we ended up creating something far more unbelievable and implausible.

Sometimes, I said, it's just best to let the bible be weird.

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