“The First Woman”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 9, 2018
University Baptist Church
Today, we begin three services where we look at women that played a part in the founding of Judeo-Christian imagination. On the last Sunday in Advent, two weeks from today, we’ll look at Mary. Next Sunday, we will look at Eve—her spiritual mother. But even before Eve was Lilith. She does not really appear in the Bible, but in between the verses. As Talmudic Rabbis tried to explain the differences between the fact that Genesis 1 speaks about man and woman being created at the same time and Genesis 2 talks about Eve being created after Adam, they wondered, might there have been another first woman? If so, what happened to her? They posited that this first woman was an equal who disagreed with Adam about the order of things. Maybe Adam could not handle her independence. Legend has it that Lilith fled the garden and lived out a life independent of Adam. She still lingers at the edge of consciousness of women, encouraging them to be independent, creative and brave. I don’t know if Lilith ever existed, but I do know about women infused with holy power. They cause you to pay attention.
Have you ever heard of Lilith? I mean aside from the Lilith fair music festival?
The stories about her are many. Most were written by men and as such paint her as a chaotic figure, a threat. Her so-called sin was that she was strong-minded, creative, rebellious.
Those of us who are friends of Liz Weinfurter on Facebook get glimpses of Lilith every once in a while. She does a great job of chronicling the fierce and cute independence of her daughters. She’s raising strong young women. Her missives give us good advice: Watch out!
Let’s do a little digging into Lilith. Lilith was a woman of power and independence. She was not always a team player, especially when someone else made the rules. But she was there when it all began. She was a woman of insight and creativity. She’s the mother of rebellion.
Contrast this with what we know of her replacement, Eve. She is said to come out of Adam, being created after him. She is said to not follow the rules and was punished for her strong-mindedness. She is blamed for the fall of humanity. Lilith did not hold to such nonsense. She created her own gardens. She found community among those who were similar outcasts.
Many women have sought to reclaim their inner Liliths. That independent thinking, that passion for what is right, that desire to leave rather than conform to another’s rules. As such Lilith got blamed for all sorts of things from madness to nocturnal emissions to the degradation of society. She was the original nasty woman.
Rabbi Jill Hammer gives us some fascinating history:
In the ninth or tenth century, a clever collection of legends titled the Alphabet of Ben Sira draws on earlier stories of Adam’s wife, and of Adam’s coupling with demons, and spins an elaborate story in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife:
When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.
As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: “Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled.” God sent three angels and said to them:
“Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.
The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: “If you will go with us, well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.”
Lilith said to them: “My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.”
They said: “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them:” In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.” They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men….(Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b)
Some believe that this story is a serious attempt to explain the death of infants, while others are convinced it is a humorous tale of sexual quarrels and unsuccessful angels. The Lilith of this story confronts both Adam and God: she defies patriarchy, refuses a submissive sexual posture, and in the end refuses marriage altogether, preferring to become a demon rather than live under Adam’s authority. Notice that Lilith flees to the Sea of Reeds: the place where the Hebrews will one day go free from slavery. In this version of the Lilith story, Lilith becomes what all tyrants fear: a person who is aware she is enslaved.
This version of the Lilith tale in the Alphabet of Ben Sira quickly spread throughout Jewish life, and others expanded on it. The Zohar, a mystical work from 12th century Spain, imagines Lilith not only as the first wife of Adam but also as the wife of Satan. In the Kabbalah, Lilith takes on cosmic power. She is a chaotic counterpart to the Shekhinah (the feminine Divine Presence, the bride of the Infinite). In fact, the Zohar imagines that while the Jews suffer in exile, the Holy One (the masculine aspect of the Divine) separates from the Shekhinah, and consorts with Lilith.
Lilith’s sexual-spiritual link with the Divine will only end when the Messiah comes and the brokenness in the world is mended.
(from an online article entitled, Lilith, Lady Flying in the Darkness by Rabbi Jill Hammer)
In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness, but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says: “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.
Imagine a man of wealth and power caught in a sexual scandal. He might say “the Devil made me do it.” You are in league with the devil. But if you say, “Lilith made me do it,” then you are somehow off the hook, because who can resist and evil temptress?
In the Bible, the only reference to her is in Isaiah 34:14. Isaiah is describing an inhospitable wilderness and ends the description with the only Biblical reference to Lilith. And there she is given the moniker of a screech owl. Lilith in Hebrew is screech owl. A shrill voice that unpleasantly wakes us up and feasts upon rodents.
But imagine that Lilith is not the consort of demons nor the stealer of babies, nor even the screeching voice that disturbs our slumber. Imagine that she is the archetype of an independent woman. She is the original advocate for agency and self-sufficient resilience.
The name Lilith also means “the night”. So under the cover of darkness she comes to steal obedient babies and upset the apple cart of patriarchy.
This northern hemisphere season of short days and long nights are perfect for Lilith. Is there wisdom in the night that we are not recognizing? Is there a truth that needs to see the light of day? What lies dormant during these long winter nights that we need to awaken or at least pay attention to? Is there some rebellious force that we have been suppressing? What shadows linger at the edge of our consciousness?
Enid Dame wrote a poem several years ago entitled “Lilith”.
kicked myself out of paradise
left a hole in the morning
no note no goodbye
the man I lived with
was patient and hairy
he cared for the animals
worked late at night
under the moon
sometimes he’d hold me
our long hair tangled
he kept me from rolling
off the planet
always safe there
wasn't enough. I kept nagging
pointing out flaws
in his logic
he carried a god
around in his pocket
consulted it like
a watch or an almanac
it always proved
I was wrong
two against one
isn't fair! I cried
and stormed out of Eden
the Middle Ages
were sort of fun
they called me a witch
I kept dropping
in and out
of peoples sexual fantasies
I work in New Jersey
take art lessons
live with a cabdriver
he says, baby
what I like about you
is your sense of humor
I cry in the bathroom
and the man and the god
I couldn't live with
Judith Plaskow wrote a feminist midrash on Lilith called “The Coming of Lilith.” In this story, Lilith flees the garden because she is an “uppity woman” who doesn’t want to be pushed around by Adam or God. However, she misses female companionship. Lilith soon sneaks back into the garden and befriends Eve. Eve has been told Lilith is a demon, but once the two women share their stories, they become allies and companions in the search for knowledge. Imagine that.
Hear this, Lilith is the female wisdom and power that has been demonized. It’s the intuitive idea that there ought to be a better way of ordering life.
When I was in seminary one of my classmates did her thesis as a dramatic dialogue between Mary, Eve and Lilith. She brought all of the characters to life in a way that caused us to celebrate and squirm. Such is the power when Lilith is on the scene.
The Liliths among us brought us the blue inclusive language hymnal before any other such hymnals were published. All of those hours and months of careful and thoughtful decision-making around how to make sure our hymnody expressed our theology.
I find in the Lilith’s I’ve met, a wisdom, a power and an intuition that says, pay attention. They wear pink pussy hats and don’t take patriarchy’s “no” as the final answer.
She’s Idgy Threadgood in the film “Fried Green Tomoatoes”, who is devoted to her sense of what’s right and helps Kathy Bates’ character stand up to her husband. She is embodied in the name “Tawanda” Although I call her Lilith.
She’s the girl with the dragon tattoo. She’s a little but Rahab, Bathsheba, Tamar and Rught.
The Liliths of today say #metoo. They say, we will not be defined by the rules set up to quiet us. The cry out at night like screech owls. They wake us up. They say that the manger scene is not a serene thing, but an abuse of power that a woman has to bear a child in shame away from comfort, on the road, as a refugee, shunned by her family. And this is where God or Goddess breaks through. Pay attention, screeches Lilith.
Who is the Lilith in your life?
Who makes you wake up?
Who is so connected to the earth and to what is right that they let you know about it all the time? Listen to her. Her wisdom may well awaken something in you.