The Coming of Lilith

Continuing the discussion from Why were Adam and Eve cast out of Eden?:

There are certainly both good and bad interpretations of Genesis. There is often a lot of debate about what our sense or feel of the meaning of the text. I’ve always found more value in seeing how different people read Genesis and why.

One of the more interesting cases I came across a while ago was this Jewish midrash on the garden, a feminist reading made into a play. Many people would call it a bad reading of Genesis, but it certainly still is interesting:

The story is epic and archetypal; The Lord creates Adam, but not Eve just yet; instead, he creates Adam in twain with a perfect female counterpart to his own nature. For instance, Lilith is born of the dirt and breath, like Adam. One day, Adam is barking orders at Lilith to clean up around the garden and bring him his afternoon figs, and Lilith decides she has had enough. She walks off into the jungle. When God comes back to check in on the little human family, Adam tells him that Lilith has run off into the wilderness.

God tries to convince Lilith to return, but Lilith refuses to live in a family where her only role is to be a slave to a lazy husband who has no respect for her sovereign nature and divine worth. God threatens her, but she is not swayed. Then, he puts Adam into a deep sleep (resuming the scriptural narrative), and Eve is born from his ribcage. After a while, though, the Lord continues analyzing his handiwork and he notices that, actually, Lilith had a point, and Eve’s role as “helper” has spoiled Adam’s character.

Eve learns about Adam’s first wife and ends up very curious about Lilith. She climbs the forbidden wall and visits Lilith in her side of the garden. They are very cordial and familial, and they instantly strike up a fascinating and conversational dialogue about life and reality, and Adam. They laugh together and cry and tell stories. At home, this encounter has an immediate effect on Eve’s character. She is no longer passive and helpless. God decides that his own nature must be dynamic, because his reality demands chronic improvement toward a new ideal.

This is a midrash:

Historically, rabbis wrote midrash to explain problems they found in biblical texts. If there seemed to be a missing piece to a story, an inconsistency between two different passages, or a redundant word or verse, the rabbis would explain the problem by writing a new midrash, filling in the missing dialogue, reconciling the seeming contradiction, or showing how there is no redundancy since each word is there to teach a specific lesson or practice.

In 1972, one such woman—the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow—wrote “The Coming of Lilith.” It is a midrash about the Garden of Eden, told from a feminist point of view. “The Coming of Lilith” is actually a midrash on a midrash. In the original Lilith midrash, the rabbis wondered how to reconcile the two different accounts of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis. Genesis chapter 1 describes God’s creation of man and woman at the very same moment. But Genesis chapter 2 recounts how God makes man and puts him in the Garden of Eden, and then realizes he needs a mate, and creates woman.

The rabbis tried to reconcile these two stories into one coherent narrative. What happened to the woman created in Genesis 1, such that Adam was alone and in need of a mate in Genesis 2? To answer this question, the Rabbis created the legend of Lilith as the first woman. In this legend, Lilith was Adam’s equal, but when he insisted on dominating her, she left him. So God created Eve to be Adam’s second mate; created from his body, she was more willing to be submissive to him. Thus, Lilith was the woman mentioned in Genesis 1, and Eve the new woman created in Genesis 2 after Lilith fled.

In the ancient rabbinic tradition, Lilith was vilified. The rabbinic stories turned her into a demoness who sought to kill human infants unless they were protected by amulets. However, in “The Coming of Lilith,” Plaskow transforms the fearsome, baby-stealing Lilith into a wise and brave woman. Instead of being a rival to be feared, she becomes Eve’s friend and empowerer.

“The Coming of Lilith” also examines the potential power of sisterhood to transform the world and right its inequities. Eve and Lilith build “a bond between them” by telling each other stories, laughing and crying together, and teaching each other many things. This bond between women has the potential to be a catalyst for change, as shown by the concluding line of the story: “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.”

Interestingly enough, in this version of the story, God is cast as patriarchal, learning from his creation, and not entirely honest about the consequences of eating of the tree. These are places of artistic license that most people would say departs far from the best reading. Still, it makes for a good story.

The allure of Genesis is that it draws you into many questions about the meaning of important realities, like our relationships with one another and with God. It certainly does not give all the answers. Genesis, like most works of great literature, leaves us with more questions than answers.

This play almost made it into the GAE, but perhaps wisely, I decided against it. Are you familiar with it @AllenWitmerMiller, @jongarvey, @deuteroKJ, @thoughtful?


Well, that would certainly explain why God made Eve when there were already plenty of single ladies outside the garden. It doesn’t reflect much credit on him, though.


Not the play, but vaguely aware of the Lilith idea - scarcely a “Legend” but more a convenient fable - possibly one of what Paul would have called “Jewish myths.”

But the value, i guess, is in showing that to some rabbis, at least, the idea of people outside the garden was not unthinkable - presumably (and I can’t say I’m informed on this) Lilith’s descendants explain the question of Cain’s wife.

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tu quoque?

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Paul, as a Jew, was probably well able to distinguish “Jewish myth” from “Jewish foundations.”

I’m not aware that any serious scholar has even bothered to search for an historical basis for Lilith.

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There seems quite a bit of history to ignore.

Not that I’m suggesting there was a historical basis for Lilith. It does suggest to me that the tendency to tell, enjoy and embellish stories is a universal human trait.

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Lilith appears to have been one of God’s mistakes. Somebody contact Oolon Colluphid.

This is not related to the discussion exactly, but once had a pastor (if I remember right, or another Christian) explain that he thought Adam was near Eve when the serpent spoke to her. So perhaps the first sin of Eve Adam took part in by not exercising headship. In a way, most, if not all the ten commandments seem to be broken at the same time, even though they hadn’t been given yet.

I find that the two stories emphasize different things. One is the equality of the image of God. The other emphasizes the differences between the two and why.

I remember one brief mention in one OT Hebrew course, mostly as an aside about feminism. But I never really studied Midrashic literature.

I’m sure plenty of scholars have studied the historical origins of Lilith. But a story that originates in the early centuries CE certainly lacks provenance for events several millennia BCE.

In contrast, the Genesis Eden narrative itself shows clear literary connections to the very earliest written narratives, over in Mesopotamia in the early 2nd millennium BCE in their present form, and considered to have their origins as early as the mid 3rd millennium. That gives a clear historical substrate for scholars to work on, albeit with limited materials after such an interval.

Your point about stories being prone to development is fair, but on the other hand it’s also interesting that it took Jewish sources getting on for 3,000 years to feel the need to invent Lilith. That suggests that embellishment is not a universal principle, but a local contingency.

That actually fits with modern theories of the transmission of “oral tradition,” which shows that middle eastern village communities, for example, will pass on the core of their important stories strictly accurately, allowing meanwhile variations in inessential details. That refutes the old Victorian idea that tradition always works like Chinese Whispers.

One can begin to see that change in approach working out in real history. Until the last decade, the legend of King Arthur being born at Tintagel Castle back in the Dark Ages was dismissed as a 12th century fantasy by Geoffrey of Monmouth, perpetrated for political reasons. The ruins of Tintagel were clearly far too late, and miles from anywhere important.

Now archaeology has shown Tintagel to have been a key trading centre, with literary activity and high status (?royal) buildings, back in the post-Roman period. Arthur’s name has not been found there, but suddenly he fits into history - much as does King David, now pretty firmly established as historical by the Tell Dan stela, the Moabite stone, and the excavation of Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the two steles both only attest to a “House of David”, not to the fact that this house’s founder was a king, and that which polity built Khirbet Qeiyafa remains under dispute.

Addendum: is Tintagel (or for that matter Ygraine, and Uther’s deception/seduction of her) even mentioned in the pre-Galfridian Arthurian legend? I can find no mention of it in the Historia Brittonum.

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True, but “House of Stuart” implies a “Stuart,” or a complicated alternative theory when one has both a biography and a strong national tradition.

And likewise, Khirbet Qeiyafa, from the time attributed to David or, at latest, Solomon, if not built by that regime, was built bt one very like it at the same time in the same region. It is, of course, always possible to argue that the works of Shakespeare were not written by him, but by somebody else of the same name!

As for Tintagel, you’d better re-write the Wikipedia page. I keep meaning to borrow my brother’s copy of Geoffrey, but lockdown has prevented the journey.

As far as I can see, the Wikipedia article on Tintagel castle explicitly disavows any pre-Galfridian basis:

"there simply is no independently attested connection in early Cornish folklore locating Arthur, at any age or in any capacity, at Tintagel."

And, by definition, your “brother’s copy of Geoffrey” cannot help you establish a pre-Galfridian (i.e. pre-Geoffrey of Monmouth) basis for it.

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In this case, the ‘implication’ would be wrong. The name and ‘House of Stuart’ (also spelt Stewart) derives from Walter fitz Alan, who was High Steward of Scotland.

We also have “both a biography and a strong national tradition” for King Arthur and Robin Hood. That does not negate the possibility of legendary accretion.

Addendum: as “David” means “beloved”, it would not seem to be too far-fetched to hypothesise that the ‘House of David’ might mean ‘the house of the beloved’ rather than ‘the house of a guy named David’, just as the ‘house of Stewart’ meant ‘the house of the High Steward’ rather than ‘the House of a guy named Stewart’. I’m not stating this as a certainty, but simply as a possibility.

This is ‘Biblical Archeology’ at its sloppiest. Shoehorning archeological evidence into the Biblical account, rather than critically testing the Biblical account against the evidence. There have been numerous other candidates suggested for Khirbet Qeiyafa’s builders.

And this would appear to be a false equivalence, as we have far more evidence for the existence of, and career of, Shakespeare than we do for King David.

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