Marriage in the Bible, Part 3
In my last post in this unfocused look at marriage in the Bible, I discussed the interpretation of the Genesis story. Alas, I find that version of the story is incomplete. To get the real dirt on Adam & Eve, you have to turn to the Rabbinical literature.
You think the apple was the worst of it? Oh, no.
Every Last Drop of Meaning
Rabbinical interpretation is a strange thing to most modern Christians. The ancient scribes and Rabbis assumed that their sacred literature held cryptic meanings placed there by God. If fact, there were sometimes multiple hidden meanings within a single section.
Biblical contradictions are an embarrassment to modern fundamentalists, but to the ancient scholars they acted a keyholes through which a hidden meaning might be glimpsed. Holes in the story could be used to tell new stories, and thereby wring a little more meaning out of the text. The most famous of these stories is probably the story of Lilith.
Lilith, The Night Hag
Pullquote: “And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas, the satyr shall cry to his fellow; yea, there shall the night hag alight, and find for herself a resting place.”
Lilith began her literary existence as a Babylonian demoness. Her name roughly translated to “bad wind;” the ill wind that blows misfortune. She seemed to be part succubus and part night hag: she was stealing semen one moment, then killing infants the next. That’s where things sat for thousands of years.
Then some of the Rabbis began to look at the story of Genesis again. They noticed that the story has humanity being created twice, once in Genesis 1 and again in Genesis 2. In the first case, man and woman were created simultaneously. In the second case, the woman was created sometime later, drawn for the rib (or side) of Adam.
What could this contradiction mean? Someone decided that it must mean that woman had been created twice, or rather that two different women had been created. Since the story continues with Eve, she must have been the second. Looking around for a candidate for the first creation, their thoughts went to Lilith.
Exactly when this happened isn’t clear. Lilith still plays the traditional demoness role in the Talmud, compiled in the early 6th century. The first full version of her marriage to Adam appears in the Alphabet of Ben-Sira, which could have been written anywhere from the 8th century to the 10th century.
For Want of the Kama Sutra
Pullquote: It’s a fun story, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just an ancient joke about first wives.
The Alphabet gives us a fairly advanced version of the story. The work itself is satirical, so the version we get is blunt and earthy. It seems that Adam and Lilith, both created from the earth at roughly the same time, cannot get along. Since they both come from the same source there is no way to establish precedence. So we find them squabbling over … well, I’ll let you read it:
Adam and Lilith immediately 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 I am to be 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.
If someone had told them that there are more than two possible positions, human history might be very different.
Apparently Lilith got fed up with this. She flies off and refuses to return, taking on her familiar role as the explanation for crib death. Later Jewish mystical works imply that Lilith is the mother of demons and the wife of Satan. If we link the stories (which was probably never the intent of the authors) we see that Lilith has entered into a rebound relationship with the devil. It’s a fun story, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just an ancient joke about first wives.
Poor Adam is left alone in Eden while Lilith is off partying with Old Scratch himself, surely sufficient punishment for Adam’s insistence on the missionary position. So God tries again, this time creating a woman from a piece of Adam. Since this woman was created directly from man, she will be properly subservient … or will she? But that’s a story for next time.
Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.