Lilith has been a misunderstood, appropriated, and redeemed woman throughout the ages. Many feminists claim her as an empowering figure in Jewish mythology, her story reclaimed by contemporary artists such as Sarah McLachlan, who created the all-women music tour, “Lilith Fair.” Some queer scholars have surmised that Lilith had a romantic relationship with Eve. Others have claimed that Lilith was a demon who seduced men and strangled children in the night. Quite a disparity, isn’t it?
The first time I painted her, I wrote about my subsequent leaving of the church here on Feminism and Religion. Based almost entirely on Judith Plaskow’s beautiful midrash, “The Coming of Lilith,” I’ve painted a second Holy Woman Icon rendition of Lilith. In the Jewish tradition, midrash is akin to climbing inside the story—inside the Torah—and imagining what happened in the places where the text offers no description; it is the space between the letters, the creative imagination within the narrative that makes the story come alive.
According to Plaskow’s midrash, God created Adam and Lilith from the same earth. Tired of Adam demanding that she be subservient to him, Lilith left the Garden of Eden. She was later befriended by Eve and her legacy of empowering women continues today. Adding a queer twist to this feminist midrash, some claim that Lilith and Eve became lovers, as well.
Plaskow’s powerful Midrash stems from a myth that has shifted over time. There is no single Lilith story, but many different stories must be sifted and sorted to determine who Lilith truly is and was. She appears explicitly only once in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 34:14) in a list of wild animals in desolate land. She is not described, but named simply: “Lilith.” Some scholars propose that the Lilith myth was so well-known by Isaiah’s audience that there was no need to offer any explanatory words.
In Talmudic literature, Lilith is associated with the creation story in a manner similar to Plaskow’s Midrash. Here she is also banished from the Garden. In the Alphabet of Ben Sira (7th-11th centuries) Lilith is presented as Adam’s first wife. When she refuses to lie with Adam during sex, she calls out the name of god and flies away to an evil place filled with demons. By the end of the Talmudic period, the demonic and seductive elements of the Lilith myth were solidified. So, in the writings of the Kabbalah, Lilith is primarily understood to be a seductress and child-killer. Regarding this reputation, some feminist scholars assert that the vilification of Lilith intensifies over time because Lilith is perceived to be more and more powerful. The more powerful Lilith is perceived to be, the more evil her portrayal. What Plaskow’s midrash creates, redeems, and affirms is that Lilith left what was hurting and oppressing her and lived into who she was called to be: one who empowered women.
Walking away from the Garden that oppressed her, Lilith reaches beyond the confines of the canvas as her heart cries out to us:
With Eden behind her,
She stood her ground,
Her heart beating freedom and dignity
For all women…
Interpreting Plaskow’s feminist midrash with a queer lens offers further redemptive potential, particularly if we remember the many times we queer folk have been pushed outside the “garden’s walls” because we are not welcome, we do not belong, or we cannot follow the rules of heteronormativity.
I first painted Lilith in 2013, after rereading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church; I was a pastor facing toxicity and heterosexist and sexist microaggressions, and Lilith gave me the courage to climb over the garden’s walls for the first time, realizing that the church was not a safe place for me as a queer woman. Even if I was the pastor. Even if the church was justice-centered and open and affirming. In order to save my soul, I had to leave the church. In order to save her soul, I believe Lilith had to leave the Garden.
In repainting Lilith on the cusp of a new year, it is my hope that you, too, may be emboldened to climb over the walls that are hurting your soul. As an artist, activist, scholar, and clergywoman, it is my sincere hope that Lilith may empower you to make 2017 the year when you climb into places of bold affirmation, subversive love, and redemptive peace. It may not be easy. After fourteen years of ministerial service, leaving church was certainly not easy for me. And I don’t imagine that leaving the Garden was easy for Lilith, either. After all, look at how her reputation has been sullied over the years.
I am convinced, however, that if the queer feminist community continues to offer a bold witness, an intersectional embrace, and a subversive expanse to what the Church and Garden may look like, we can, indeed, find the freedom and redemption we all deserve. Climb those walls, beloveds. And while you’re climbing, be sure to offer a helping hand to those struggling for liberation alongside you.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B,Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church, and Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com