So, I alluded to her, and now we’re going to take an in-depth look at her. I have scoured the web, and looked at many, many, many people’s interpretations of Lilith, but very few have any kind of original text. I will offer caution to anyone looking for deeper information about Lilith that the false information vastly outnumbers the truth.
However, I have found an authentic story of Lilith for your perusal. Don’t worry, it’s a couple of paragraphs, so it’s a quick read (mild spoiler: it’s about sexual positions). The story is problematic mostly because of its authenticity. It’s not an ancient rabbinic story. It’s medieval. Literally! It comes from the Middle Ages from the Alphabet of Ben Sira. So if it originated less than a thousand years ago, how can it possibly be accurate about events taking place at the same time as Genesis?
Well, here’s where mythology starts borrowing from other cultures. There are Sumerian and Babylonian myths which feature Lilith (or lilitu in the Babylonian) that describe female demons with job descriptions remarkably similar to what the Alphabet prescribes to Lilith.
But (and there’s frequently a but) though Lilith doesn’t appear in any midrash or Talmudic text, most of those were passed on orally until modern times. So while a clear text featuring Lilith doesn’t exist until medieval times, the legend itself could have been passed around well before this. For a more thorough scholarly breakdown, read this article.
However, I don’t want to do that. I want to talk about what we’ve got going on in this myth because I think it’s fascinating. I also think that it’s quite easily to misunderstand and misapply what’s going on. So, take two minutes and go read the story by clicking the first link. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, you’re back. Awesome. So, first of all, I would like to take a moment to criticize something very important about this story. What is Adam’s problem? He’s upset because she wants to be on top? Live a little, guy! Try new things! Go borrow the Kama Sutra from the Hindus. Of all the things to complain about, he has to choose that!? I would have complained about lack of walls because animals can be pretty voyeuristic.
So, now that we’ve identified the central conflict (Man and woman arguing about sex. This is very much an ancient argument, and it still hasn’t been resolved.) we can understand a little more.
Many feminists laud this story as an example of the first feminist—Lilith. They would also like to relate that it’s a demonstration of how controlling men can be, and what happens when a woman refuses to be controlled by a man. To take it further, how the Bible is completely patriarchal and disdainful of women. This last frequently gets paired up with the order of creation argument, which, if you’ve been reading, I put a different spin on the idea by talking about refinement and how women are the ultimate creation.
And, so, I will put yet another spin on this myth.
See, there was no divine mandate from God about positions. In fact, God stayed out of the whole thing. They were arguing to their hearts’ content without any interference from God. However, Lilith did cross the line. She did something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do, say the name of God.
In Judaism, the name of God is represented by the Tetragrammaton, which consists of the Hebrew letters YHWH. These appear in the Bible, but are never to be spoken out loud. It’s a major no-no that Lilith did this, which is why she was cursed. Yes, she objected to Adam being an idiot about positions, which was her right, but she went too far with speaking the name.
So while the story’s initial conflict is about sex, the real crime is Lilith speaking the divine name, which she knew she wasn’t supposed to do. While some would analyze this to mean that she still is rebelling against patriarchal authority, I tend to view this as something more adolescent: a teenager rebelling because teenagers like to rebel against things.
Oh, and Adam is still an idiot because of the position thing.
It should be noted, however, again, that the Alphabet of Ben Sira is not thought of as something canonical by any of the Abrahamic religions, and in fact the characterization of Adam in this story seems different from how he is in Eden with Eve (and we’ll get there, eventually. It’s more involved than you would think.).