Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Wait, Adam Had Two Wives!?


I recently had a bright young lady I know message me with a rather odd question. Why does the Talmud say that Adam had a wife before Eve? And if it’s true then why wasn’t it mentioned in the Genesis creation accounts?[1]
Well it’s certainly true that certain Jewish texts refer to Adam having a wife before Eve. The most famous one is The Alphabet of ben Sirach (although contrary to the original question it is not part of the Talmud).[2] The story of Adam’s first wife sets out to fix a discrepancy in Scripture: why does Genesis 1 state that man and woman were created simultaneously but Genesis 2 states that the man was created before the woman?[3] The answer is that God created two wives – one in chapter one (Lilith) and the other (Eve) in chapter two. 

And, believe it or not, Adam’s “first” wife is mentioned in the Bible. Isaiah 34:12-14 states: 

They shall name it No Kingdom There,
    and all its princes shall be nothing.
 Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
    an abode for ostriches.
 Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.[4]            

Wait why is she still alive during the time of Isaiah and why is her description so unflattering? She must be the ex from hell! 

Well yeah, she is.

Lilith is literally a demon.

A Babylonian demon to be precise. And not just any demon. Lilith is a demon that preys on pregnant women and their infants. She would later be portrayed as a succubus (a female demon that seduces men). Did I mention that her breasts excreted poison instead of milk? 

And we know that the Jewish people took Lilith very seriously because of artefacts that have been unearthed by archaeologists. Charms bearing Lilith’s name would be placed around the necks of new-born children because it was believed that Lilith would depart if she saw her name. “Incantation bowls” from circa 700 C.E. have been found bearing Lilith’s image. The purpose of these bowls was to trap demons. A sorcerer would fashion the bowl with the image of a feared demon and written wards against the demon. The bowl would then be place upside down under the floor of the house as a “demon trap”.[5]
The author of the Alphabet of ben Sirach posits that Lilith was created by God as the first wife for Adam.[6] But all was not well in paradise for Lilith refused to submit to Adam, even going as far as to refuse to be on bottom during sex.[7]  Adam demands that Lilith perform her wifely duties and Lilith demands that Adam gives her freedom. Eventually Lilith utters the unspeakable name of God (the Tetragrammaton) and flies away to the desert, paving the way for Eve to come into the story.

So is this story Scripture? 


The Alphabet of ben Sirach’s earliest possible composition date is 700 C.E., long after the biblical canon was decided. There is also no evidence that it was considered an authoritative text. It is folklore rather than Scripture.

So is it important?

I would tentatively say yes. I was chatting with some other youth pastor friends about the topic of Lilith and one said that as something not biblical it’s not worth pondering over. While I can see where they were coming from, I respectfully disagree. After all, bright young people rarely react positively to their questions being dismissed!

Here’s why I think the story of Lilith is important to address.

It tells us how people thought about their world and how it shaped their faith.

Although I haven’t written about this topic on this blog, anyone who has attended any of my sermons or talks on biblical interpretation will know that I am big on the idea of reading religious texts within their wider historical and cultural context, especially in comparison and contrast to neighbouring cultures and religions.[8] The reason for this is because people throughout history have held vastly different worldviews to the modern Western worldview. Especially ancient Near Eastern and Medieval Jews. While we may not believe that infant deaths were caused by the interference, they did and it affected how they practiced their faith (see: incantation bowls) and read Scripture. Reconstructing the ancient Near Eastern view of Scripture is especially important because it helps to avoid forcing modern ideas onto the Bible and lets us read Scripture for what it is.

It shows us that religions change over time.

I think one of the big pitfalls many modern evangelicals (especially those belonging to the Hebrew Roots movement or Christian Zionism) fall into is having a very romanticised view of Judaism where biblical Judaism is trapped frozen in time. But the fact is that Judaism, just like Christianity, has undergone a lot of change over the millenniums. Contrary to the popular view of some atheists, religions are not static monoliths stubbornly resisting change. All religions change and adapt in response to the changing culture, new questions, and internal conflict. We can even see this in the Bible when the Jews were sent into exile and had to wrestle with how they would practice their faith without a temple.   

But the big problem is that not acknowledging that Judaism has changed can lead to some rather embarrassing mistakes. They can be being condescending or patronising towards Jewish people. Or they can be downright cringe-inducing. Consider the controversy a pastor caused last year when he placed a tallit godal (Jewish prayer shawl) on Donald Trump as a “symbol of God’s anointing”, noting that it was “straight from Israel”. Many Jews were offended that a Christian pastor would bestow a special symbol of Jewish identity upon a man like Trump (one person compared it to a non-Catholic taking the Eucharist because they fancied a snack or a rabbi giving another rabbi a crucifix). Others were baffled and wondered if the pastor actually understood what the tallit godal is. In her excellent article Why It’s Absurd for a Pastor to Give Donald Trump a Jewish Prayer Shawl, Jewish scholar Jen Taylor Friedman says that many Christians wear the tallit godal under the impression that it’s what Jesus wore (Friedman calls it “playing dress-up-as-Jesus”).[9] Except he probably didn’t. Friedman points out that the wearing of the tallit godal is a late medieval development. But that doesn’t stop us from using a garment of religious significance in every way that it wasn’t designed to be used.

The fact is that when you don’t acknowledge that religions change and adapt you end up with a caricature of that religion and will make any dialogue with people of that religion more difficult than it needs to be. And for those who care about spreading the Gospel, we should remember that causing undue offense is a really stupid thing to do and you might come across as a bit of an idiot. And besides that, not claiming that you know more about someone else’s religion is simply being a humble and decent human being.

And that is why I think it’s important to recognise that at some point in history someone wrote a book about how Adam was married to a demon.[10]
Picture credit: Lilith (1982) by John Collier. Public domain.  

[1] She asked me this because “I know things”.
[2] I should note here that some scholars believe that this text is a satirical one and one not meant to be taken seriously. However, the idea that Adam had a wife before Eve appears in the earlier midrash Genesis Rabbah. This post is written with the assumption that it’s a serious piece of text because it acts as a springboard for what I want to talk about. Keep that in mind.   
[3] My primary source for this post is an excellent article called Lilith by Janet Howe Gaines over at the Biblical Archaeology Society. I would recommend reading it if you want a more in-depth and scholarly treatment of the subject than what I intend here (after you’ve finished reading this post of course!).  
[4] Some translations use other words in place of Lilith (including “the night hag” or “night creatures”).
[5] Haaretz recently published a story about Dr. Naama Vilozny’s work on these bowls. I recommend reading it for more information on incantation bowls.
[6] That or Adam was using the world’s worst matchmaker website.
[7] Can you believe that they let me teach Sunday school?
[8] One of my big areas of interest is how the Genesis creation narratives take elements of the pagan creation narratives to present a criticism of the worldview of the surrounding cultures and to define Judaism as being a radically different religion.        
[9] I’ve heard one religious Jew refer to Christians who do this as “Jewish cosplayers” – cosplay (a portmanteau of “costume play”) refers to geeks people who design elaborate costumes of fictional characters and act like them at comic conventions.
[10] And I guess some people can relate to that.

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