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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
nit'-mon-ster (lilith; Septuagint onokentauros; Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) lamia):
I. THE ACCEPTED TRANSLATION
1. Professor Rogers' Statement
2. Exception to the Statement
II. FOLKLORE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
1. Paucity of References
2. References in Highly Poetical Passages
3. The References Allusive
4. Possibility of Non-mythological Interpretation
5. The Term Lilith.
I. The Accepted Translation.
The term "night-monster"' is a hypothetical translation of the Hebrew term lilith, used once only, in Isa 34:14. The word is translated in the King James Version "screech-owl," margin "night monster," the Revised Version (British and American) "night-monster," margin "Lilith." The term "night-monster" is also an interpretation, inasmuch as it implies that the Hebrew word is a Babylonian loan-word, and that the reference indicates a survival of primitive folklore.
1. Professor Rogers' Statement:
Concerning this weird superstition, and its strange, single appearance in the Book of Isaiah, Professor Rogers has this to say: "The lil, or ghost, was a night-demon of terrible and baleful influence upon men, and only to be cast out with many incantations. The lil was attended by a serving maid, the ardat lili ("maid of night"), which in the Semitic development was transferred into the feminine lilitu. It is most curious and interesting to observe that this ghost-demon lived on through the history of the Babylonian religion, and was carried out into the Hebrew religion, there to find one single mention in the words of one of the Hebrew prophets" (Religions of Assyria and Babylonia, 76, 77).
2. Exception to the Statement:
Exception is to be taken to this statement, admitting the etymological assumption upon which it rests, that "lilith" is a word in mythology, on the ground that the conception of a night-demon has no place in the religion of the Hebrews as exhibited in the Scriptures. It is certainly worthy of more than passing notice that a conception which is very prominent in the Babylonian mythology, and is worked out with great fullness of doctrinal and ritualistic detail, has, among the Hebrews, so far receded into the background as to receive but one mention in the Bible, and that a bald citation without detail in a highly poetic passage.
The most that can possibly be said, with safety, is that if the passage in Isa is to be taken as a survival of folklore, it is analogous to those survivals of obsolete ideas still to be found in current speech, and in the literature of the modern world (see LUNATIC). There is no evidence of active participation in this belief, or even of interest in it as such, on the part of the prophetical writer. On the contrary, the nature of the reference implies that the word was used simply to add a picturesque detail to a vivid, imaginative description. All positive evidence of Hebrew participation in this belief belongs to a later date (see Buxtorf's Lexicon, under the word "Talmud").
II. Folklore in the Old Testament.
Attention has been called elsewhere to the meagerness, in the matter of detail, of Old Testament demonology (see DEMON, DEMONOLOGY; COMMUNION WITH DEMONS). A kindred fact of great importance should be briefly noticed here, namely, that the traces of mythology and popular folklore in the Bible are surprisingly faint and indistinct. We have the following set of items in which such traces have been discovered: "Rahab" (rachabh), mentioned in Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9; "Tanin" (tannin), Isa 27:1; "Leviathan" (liwyathan), Job 3:8; Ps 74:14; Isa 27:1; Ezek 29:3; Job 41 passim; the "serpent in the sea," in Am 9:3; "Seirim" (se`irim), 2 Ch 11:15; Lev 17:7; 2 Ki 23:8; Isa 13:21; 34:14; "Alukah" (`aluqah), Prov 30:15; "Azazel (`aza'zel) Lev 16:8,10,26 "Lilith" (ut sup.), Isa 34:14,15.when disturbed in brooding or raising its young. Its habit was to lie on its back and fight with beak and claw with such ferocity that it seemed very possible that it would "tear and scratch the face." Some commentators insist that the bird intended was an owl, but for the above reasons the night-jar seems most probable; also several members of the owl family were clearly indicated in the list.
A review of these passages brings certain very interesting facts to light.
1. Paucity of References:
The references are few in number. Rahab is mentioned 3 times; Tannin (in this connection), once; Leviathan, 5 times; the serpent in the sea, once; Seirim, 5 times (twice with references to idols); Alukah, once; Azazel, 3 times in one chapter and in the same connection; Lilith, once.
2. References in Highly Poetical Passages:
These references, with the single exception of Azazel to which we shall return a little later, are all in highly poetical passages. On general grounds of common-sense we should not ascribe conscious and deliberate mythology to writers or speakers of the Bible in passages marked by imaginative description and poetic imagery, any more than we should ascribe such beliefs to modern writers under like circumstances. Poetry is the realm of truth and not of matter of fact. In passages of this tenor, mythology may explain the word itself and justify its appropriateness, it does not explain the use of the term or disclose the personal view of the writer.
3. The References Allusive:
All these references are in the highest degree allusive. They exhibit no exercise of the mythological fancy and have received no embroidery with details. This is most significant. So far as our specific references are concerned, we are dealing with petrified mythology, useful as literary embellishment, but no longer interesting in itself.
4. Possibility of Non-mythological Interpretation:
Every one of these words is sufficiently obscure in origin and uncertain in meaning to admit the possibility of a non-mythological interpretation; indeed, in several of the parallels a non-mythological use is evident. Bible-Dict. writers are apt to say (e.g. concerning lilith) that there is no doubt concerning the mythological reference. The reader may discover for himself that the lexicographers are more cautious (see Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, in the place cited.). The use of "Rahab" in Job 26:12 is not mythological for the simple reason that it is figurative; the use of "Leviathan" in Isa 27:1 and Ezek 29:3 comes under the same category. In Job 40 and 41, if the identification of behemoth and leviathan with hippopotamus and crocodile be allowed to stand and the mythological significance of the two be admitted, we have the stage where mythology has become a fixed and universal symbolism which can be used to convey truth apart from the belief in it as reality (see LEVIATHAN; "Job," New Century Bible, p. 335; Meth. Rev., May, 1913, 429 ff). The sea serpent of Am 9:3 is not necessarily the dragon or Tiamat, and the use of the term is merely suggestive. The term se`ir is in literal use for "he-goat" (Nu 15:24, et al.) and is doubtful throughout. Ewald translates it "he-goat" in Isa 34:14 and "Satyr" in 13:21. It means literally "shaggy monster" (Vulgate, pilosus). We do not hesitate on the basis of the evidence to erase "Alukah" (Prov 30:15, the Revised Version (British and American) "horse-leech," by some translated "vampire") and "Azazel" (Lev 16:8, etc.), interpreted as a "demon of the desert," from the list of mythological words altogether. As ripe a scholar as Perowne ("Proverbs," Cambridge Bible) combats the idea of vampire, and Kellogg ("Leviticus," Expositor's Bible, in the place cited.) has simply put to rout the mythological-demonic interpretation of Azazel. Even in the case of lilith the derivation is obscure, and the objections urged against the demonic idea by Alexander have not altogether lost their force (see Commentary on Isaiah, in the place cited.). There is a close balance of probabilities in one direction or the other.
5. The Term Lilith:
One further fact with regard to lilith must be considered. The term occurs in a list of creatures, the greater part of which are matter-of-fact animals or birds. A comparative glance at a half-dozen translates of the passage Isa 34:11-14 will convince any reader that there are a great many obscure and difficult words to be found in the list. Following Delitzsch's translation we have: "pelican," "hedge-hog," "horned-owl," "raven," "wild-dog," "ostrich," "forest-demon" (se`ir), "night-monster." This is a curious mixture of real and imaginary creatures. Alexander acutely observes that there is too much or too little mythology in the passage. One of two conclusions would seem to follow from a list so constructed: Either all these creatures are looked upon as more or less demonic (see Whitehouse, Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), article "Demon," with which compare West M. Alexander, Demonic Possession in the New Testament, 16), or, as seems to the present writer far more probable, none in the list is considered otherwise than as supposed literal inhabitants of the wilderness. The writer of Isa 34:14, who was not constructing a scientific treatise, but using his imagination, has constructed a list in which are combined real and imaginary creatures popularly supposed to inhabit unpeopled solitudes. There still remains a by no means untenable supposition that none of the terms necessarily are mythological in this particular passage.
Louis Matthews Sweet
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'night-monster'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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