There is a folklore that Adam had a wife called Lilith before Eve. Other myths have her as a night demon. In this answer, we explore what the Bible says about lilith, and what lilith means.
Lilith in the Bible
This word occurs once:
Isaiah 34:13-15 Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
an abode for ostriches.
14 And wild animals shall meet with hyenas;
the wild goat shall cry to his fellow;
indeed, there the night bird6 settles
and finds for herself a resting place.
15 There the owl nests and lays
and hatches and gathers her young in her shadow;
indeed, there the hawks are gathered,
each one with her mate.
6 34:14 Identity uncertain
Other translations include:
- centaur (Greek, Septuagint)
- Lilith (Talmud)
- lamia (i.e. demoness, Latin, Vulgate)
- the lamya (Wycliffe 1380)
- der Kobold (i.e. goblin, German, Luther 1545)
- screech owl (KJV 1611)
- night-owl (Young, 1898)
- night-spectre (Rotherham, 1902)
- night monster (ASV, 1901; NASB, 1995)
- vampires (Moffatt Translation, 1922)
- night hag (RSV, 1947)
- Lilith (Jerusalem Bible, 1966)
- lilith (New American Bible, 1970)
- Lilith (The Message, Eugene Peterson, 1993)
- night monster (Good News/TEV/GNT 1966-2001)
- night creature (NIV, 1978; NKJV, 1982; NLT, 1996)
- Lilith (NRSV 1989)
- night bird (ESV 2001)
The word “night bird” in the ESV is a translation of the Hebrew word liyliyth, a word which is otherwise unknown.
The Hebrew root L-Y-L “night”
Translations such as “night owl”, “night bird”, “nightjar” are based on the Hebrew root L-Y-L which shows that liyliyth means “night creature” of some sort. Although the context of Isaiah 34 indicates birds and animals, the rest of the sentence “settles and finds for herself a resting place” uses two commonplace Hebrew verbs and a common noun “resting place”, and could equally be used of birds, animals, or people. Nevertheless, the following verse referring to owls “nesting” clearly indicates natural not supernatural creatures; a demon does not “nest and lay, and hatch and gather her young in her shadow”. To be consistent Isaiah either means 12 kinds of unclean animals in the ruins or 12 kinds of demons. Yet some words are undisputed, and must be animals. For example the “vulture” (Isaiah 34:15) is listed as unclean to eat in Deuteronomy 14:13. Clearly Jews were not concerned about eating demons.
- (11) qa’ath= hawk (KJV cormorant)
- qippowd = porcupine (KJV bittern)
- yanshuwph = owl
- ‘oreb = raven
- (13) tanniym = jackals
- bath = ostrich
- (14) tsiyyim = wild animals
- iyyim = hyenas
- sair = wild goat
- liyliyth = night bird
- (15) qippowz = owl
- dayoth = hawks (KJV vultures)
Lilith in the Septuagint, and Lamia in the Vulgate
As can be seen from above, the versions have been see-sawing between natural (“night bird”) and supernatural (“lamia, night hag”) since the very earliest translations. The initial reason for this is related to Jewish legends, where many of the obscurer animals in the Old Testament Hebrew text were supernaturalized into demons. Even common animals such as “goats” were translated in Jewish commentaries as “satyrs”, “demons”, and so on. Then modern scholarship, from the 18th Century till today, has debated possibly similar terms in Akkadian (the language of the Sumerians, which was influential on Hebrew in Isaiah’s time).
Lilith in Jewish legends
There’s no question that Jewish readers were inclined to supernatural readings of verses like Isaiah 34:14 in Paul’s day, and Lilith occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls:
And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendour so as to frighten and to te[rrify] all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers, and [desert dwellers…] and those which fall upon men without warning to lead them astray from a spirit of understanding and to make their heart and their […] desolate during the present dominion of wickedness and predetermined time of humiliations for the sons of lig[ht], by the guilt of the ages of [those] smitten by iniquity – not for eternal destruction, [bu]t for an era of humiliation for transgression. (trans. Baumgarten, 4Q184)
The reading “Lilith” is commonplace in the Talmuds, and therefore Jewish interpretation. However two things need to be born in mind:
- The Jewish translators of the OT into Greek were already inclined to take supernatural readings of words they did not understand. As for translating “goats” with “satyrs”, sometimes this is reasonable if the context indicates that the OT writer had a supernatural idea in mind, but in Isaiah 34 it clearly is not — as the owl’s nest, etc., indicate.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and Talmuds are exactly the sort of “Jewish myths” that Paul warned Titus to avoid (Titus 1:8).
Lilith in Akkadian / Sumerian texts
It was for a long time considered by scholars that lilith is related to Akkadian Lilitû, supposedly a demoness (G. Farber, Reallexikon der Assyriologie 1932), however “Very little information has been found relating to the Akkadian and Babylonian view of these demons” (Lowell K. Handy in The Anchor Bible Dictionary), and the meaning of Lilitû in Akkadian / Sumerian texts is now itself a matter of debate (The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago 1919-2009).
Unfortunately most ‘sources’ appear to be circular, quoting each other, or quoting theories. It is difficult to actually pin down a datable Akkadian text with the term Lilitû.
[If the authors of this site are able to actually find such a text later, we will insert it here.] See Note 1.
Etymology vs. meaning
Assuming, however, that Sumerian texts do demonstrate (in sources earlier than Isaiah) Lilitû, a demoness, the relevance of that to Hebrew is still questionable. There would need to be lexical information to support two points:
- that a night-creature from the root L-Y-L in Sumerian texts, has an etymological connection to a night-creature from the root L-Y-L in a Hebrew text.
- that if an etymological connection existed, that it is still ‘live’ and relevant.
The first point is at issue since many coinages from roots in semitic languages occur naturally without external influence from other languages. In linguistic terms the roots are “productive” meaning that roots continue to add new words to the vocabulary of the language. An example from Hebrew is Yehud– (Judah, Jewish) + -iyth (feminine noun suffix) = Yehudiyth (a Jewish woman, the name Judith) . Examples from English would be “nighty” or “nightcap” from “night”. Arabic for example also has coinages from L-Y-L (cf. the popular Arabic girl’s name Layla, ‘night’) which have occured independantly inside Arabic with no influence from other semitic languages like Aramaic or Hebrew. If Hebrew has a word liyliyth meaning night-bird, then a possible explanation is that it comes directly from Hebrew layil, night, without having to first be coined in Akkadian from the Akkadian root L-Y-L and then transmitted to Hebrew. Either way the word is a coinage, and if Akkadian can coin the word Lilitû from ‘night’, so can Hebrew coin liyliyth.
The second point is at issue since words lose their etymological associations in usage very quickly. For example, the origin of the English word “nightmare” is derived (etymologically) from 12thC Anglo-Saxon nacht + mara, the mara being an incubus or demon that causes bad dreams. Yet how many 21st Century English-speakers have any inkling of this when they say “I had a nightmare”. What in 12thC Anglo-Saxon was a clearly supernatural meaning, tells us nothing about how “nightmare” is used in modern English. Although again, the feminine suffix -iyth is so common in Hebrew that liyliyth, night creature, night bird, does not require a connection to Sumerian in the first place.
The conclusion, supported by reading the complete list of 12 creatures in Isaiah 34:11-15, has to be that the liyliyth is simply a nocturnal bird of some sort.
1. Kittel Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, gives two references in the Ugarit Texts, circa 1180 BCE.
Lilitu receives sacrifices (Ugarit Text 23, line 7)
Lilitu invoked in a hymn, (Ugarit Text 204)
C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook Rome 1998, p. 164–165.