Origin: Alphabet of Ben Sira

Having now examined the Bible and Talmud, we arrive at the Alphabet of Ben Sira which holds perhaps the quinessential story of Lilith. The text is dated between the 8th and 10th centuries of the common era and tells several stories in the form of aggadah with some elements of midrash in the text. There is a bit of a frame narrative two it: the biblical Ben Sira is in the court of Neubacanazzar (please ignore spelling mistakes regarding that name!) and as the text progresses Ben Sira relays various folk tales to the king. What follows is from the book Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives in Hebrew Literature and their translation of the relevent portion of the Alphabet of Ben Sira.

Soon afterward the young son of the king took ill, Said Nebuchadnezzar, "Heal my
son. If you don't, I will kill you." Ben Sira immediately sat down and wrote an
amulet with the Holy Name, and he inscribed on it the angels in charge of
medicine by their names, forms and images, and by their wings, hands, and feet.
Nebuchadnezzar looked at the amulet. "Who are these?"
angles who are in charge of medicine: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof. After God
created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone' (Gen.
2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam
himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith began to fight. She said, 'I
will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top.
For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the
superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were
both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When
Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.
Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: 'Sovereign of the universe!' he said,
'the woman you gave me has run away.' At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent
these three angles to bring her back.
"Said the Holy One to
Adam, 'If she agrees to come back, fine. If not she must permit one hundred of
her children to die every day.' The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom
they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the
Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God's word, but she did not wish
to return. The angels said, 'We shall drown you in the sea.'

"'Leave me!' she said. 'I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the
infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if
female, for twenty days.'
"When the angels heard Lilith's
words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the
living and eternal God: 'Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an
amulet, I will have no power over that infant.' She also agreed to have one
hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons
perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels' names on the amulets of
young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the
child recovers."

This text is the defining story of Lilith and includes several elements from the earlier texts examined in this blog. Her association with children, emphasized in the Talmud (Niddah 24b) is explained in full here. It also seems to corroborate with the information from Erubin 18b with the idea of demons and Lilith's demonic children.

Aside from the correlations with previous information we are finally given a definitive history of who Lilith was and what she's like. It's the first time the idea that she's the first wife of Adam is confirmed and moreover it shows that she is an immensely independent woman. Many feminists have read this story and have identified Lilith as a prototypical feminist, adopting her as a symbol of feminism. Obviously this was not always the case, but reasons for this are their own study.

From here on out most literary texts draw on this story of Lilith to tell their own versions of the character. That is the main purpose of this blog, although it may derail from time to time.

Next: Goethe and Lilith

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