🔼The name Lilith: Summary
- From the noun לילה (layela) or ליל (layil), night.
🔼The name Lilith in the Bible
Whether the Hebrew name Lilith is a Biblical name is a matter of debate. The word לילית occurs only once in the Bible, in a sermon by Isaiah to warn the nations (and Edom specifically) what their countries were going to look like if they didn't shape up:
"And the desert creatures shall meet with the wolves. The hairy goat also shall cry to its kind. Yes, לילית shall settle there and shall find herself a resting place" (Isaiah 34:14)
Lilith (or something similar) was originally a character from Babylonian myths, named early enough to have been familiar to Isaiah. But Isaiah's fierce attitude towards the various idols in Israel and the surrounding nations makes it highly doubtful that he would have incorporated a contested figure into his writing, other than letting it be the topic of destruction. In his sermon the prophet gives this Lilith a comfortable resting place amidst the creatures, which makes it almost certainly not an acknowledged demon or idol.
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament invests half a page in this once occurring word, and states: "Lilith: a female goddess known as a night demon who haunts the desolate places of Edom". But then asks the almost rhetorical question: "Is it not possible also that what was a night demon in pagan culture was just a night creature, perhaps a bat or owl, in Israel? The pagan with his animism fills realities with spirits. [...] So lilit might have been a real creature demonized in the surrounding culture".
Lilith became incorporated in the post-biblical Rabbinic tradition but grew into the Western popular culture predominantly through the writing of either Ben Sira, or else an unknown 8th - 10th century author. The time span between this writer and Isaiah is about the same as between us and Charlemagne.
This writer either re-invented Lilith to be the first wife of Adam, or incorporated existing folklore into his story. Perhaps he drew upon the Adam and Eve account for an image of the archetypal love-couple, with Lilith — by now a creature of incredible sexual ferociousness, prone to insurrection and abscondence — the embodiment of the temptations that a man is subject to before — and after! — he meets the love of his life. Perhaps she even personified the man's old girlfriends who could come back to haunt him and his happy little family. Perhaps this story even reflected the insight that a lack of sexual discipline in one's youth jeopardizes any meaningful relation in the future.
The primary message of the author's story was that Lilith could come to your house and kill your baby, if not that baby was wearing an amulet with Lilith's name on it. Perhaps the Lilith story was the author's way to urge his male audience to inform their wives of any, say, skeletons in the closet. Perhaps it was to say that any addiction can only be overcome by a daily, conscious choice.
But whatever the deeper meanings of this story might have been, we can be sure that the author knew exactly where to get those protective amulets, various colors and potencies; all good price.
Lilith as Adam's first wife gained even more prominence in Goethe's Faust, and now many people believe that Lilith is an actual Biblical character. But in fact she's as much a Biblical character as Lord Vader.
🔼Etymology of the name Lilith
The mysterious word לילית (lilit) points undeniably towards the very common Hebrew word לילה (layela), or the less occurring form ליל (layil), both meaning night, although BDB Theological Dictionary notes, "Connection with לילה perhaps only apparent, a popular etymology".
The nouns לילה (layela) and ליל (layil) both mean night, but it's a mystery what their proposed parent verb, לילי (laylay), may have described and thus what our nouns' essential meaning might be. A similar problem occurs with the opposite, יום (yom), meaning day.
In modern times it has become obvious that all of reality is in fact based on networks (of atoms, cells, minds), and perhaps the word יום (yom) expresses the connection between nodes, whereas the nouns לילה (layela) expresses the failure of nodes to connect.
The mysterious root לילי may ring no bells to a modern reader, but to a Hebrew audience it may very well have reminded of twice the word לי (lay), which is a dative, meaning "to me". Perhaps it's a curious coincidence but where Christ stands for self-sacrifice and surrender to the collective, the word that serves as a metaphor for the absence of Christ looks a lot like twice the core principle of selfishness: to me to me! Sleeping, therefore, the condition in which one is totally in one's own head, became a Biblical metaphor for being spiritual indifferent (Matthew 25:5), and even for death (John 11:11).
Other words of interest are:
The verbs לון (lun) and לין (lin), both meaning to lodge or spend the night. Note the free exchange of the letters yod and waw. The highly similar verb לון (lun), meaning to murmur, rebel against (Exodus 15:24, Numbers 14:2). The particle לו (lu), which "marks three degrees of personal desire or agreement: wishes, entreaties, and statements of assent" (HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament); I wish...; if only... The noun לולי (lulay), denoting a loop to hang a curtain from (Exodus 26:4). A loop is obviously a closed circuit. The verb ילל (yalal), meaning to howl, wail, with "mourning for death and destruction in view" (HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament — Joel 1:5, Micah 1:8).
Isaiah was an exceptional word smith. Perhaps he simply used an existing but lost word, and perhaps he fabricated his own verb. The word לילית looks like it is the third person singular of a verb, and can be read to mean: "You do the night-thing" — whatever that night thing might be; either scurry about in the dark, howl, or frantically looking for something.
For a proper translation of Isaiah 34:14, night-owl (Young) seems acceptable; night creature (NIV & KJV21) or night bird (ASV) are spot on. A capitalized Lilith (JB, NAB) is uncalled for, as is night-spectre (EB), night-monster (ASV, NAS) or vampires for crying out loud! (MT).
The name Lilith means Night Creature.
Or as the prophet himself says:
"The Oracle concerning Edom: One keeps calling to me from Seir, "Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?" The watchman says, "Morning comes but also the night. If you would pry, then pry. Return! Come!"" (Isaiah 21:11).