A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. –Genesis 2:10-14 ESV
The opening chapters of Genesis are laden with rich imagery that would be echoed throughout Israel’s story, from the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12:1) to the proclamation of Cyrus (2 Chron. 36:22–23). Like Adam, Abraham was ‘formed’, as it were, from the dust and brought into a land that was watered “like the garden of the Lord” (Gen. 13:10). Being granted dominion over the all the land by the God of Israel (Gen. 1:28), Cyrus of Persia would commission the Jewish people to go up and rebuild God’s temple in Jerusalem. In this fashion, the ‘Primeval History’ functions not merely as part of the ongoing narrative, but as a prologue to history (Van Seters, 1992) and a commentary on its very nature. Whatever we conclude about the historicity of these early chapters, we cannot escape their profoundly metaphorical usage in the Hebrew and Christian bibles.
Only several verses into the second creation narrative, however, the imaginative world of Genesis 1–3 is interrupted by a concrete reference to several known geographical features of the ancient Near East. Was this an attempt by the author to identify Eden’s original location? Did the garden really exist? In a treasure hunt lasting more than two millennia, biblical commentators have pursued Eden as others sought Atlantis, both in theory and in practice (Albright, 1922). We are all familiar with the mighty Tigris and Euphrates of Mesopotamia (which means ‘between the rivers’), as were the ancient Israelites. The search for Eden has proven difficult, however, due to uncertainty in identifying the first two rivers: the Pishon and the Gihon.
Several clues indicate that the Pishon and Gihon were located in Egypt or Arabia. The name Havilah, where the Pishon river is said to flow, means “sandy land” (Sarna, 1991). To an ancient Israelite audience, the explicit reference to an abundance of gold and precious stones evokes images of the Egyptian royalty from which they were birthed (Exod. 12:35–36). This association also fits with the reference to “Cush”, identified later in Genesis as one ancestor of the Egyptians, hence Josephus believed the Gihon to be the famous Nile river. But whether we side with Josephus or with other commentators, who placed the rivers in southern Arabia or central Asia (north of the Ararat mountains), we are met by a basic challenge from geography. In his commentary on Genesis, John Calvin explains:
Moses says that one river flowed to water the garden, which afterwards would divide itself into four heads. It is sufficiently agreed among all, that two of these heads are the Eurphrates and the Tigris; for no one disputes that Hiddekel is the Tigris. But there is a great controversy respecting the other two. Many think, that Pishon and Gihon are the Ganges and the Nile; the error, however, of these men is abundantly refuted by the distance of the positions of these rivers.
The respective watersheds of the Tigris/Euphrates and Nile rivers are separated by hundreds of miles, and these rivers are fed by completely different mountain ranges. Even allowing the most generously odd behavior of the rivers over time, we could never pretend that all were once connected, as Genesis 2 seems to imply. Calvin continues:
It appears, that the fountains of the Euphrates and the Tigris were far distant from each other. From this difficulty, some would free themselves by saying, that the surface of the globe may have been changed by the deluge; and, therefore, they imagine it might have happened that the courses of the rivers were disturbed and changed, and their springs transferred elsewhere; a solution which appears to me by no means to be accepted. For although I acknowledge that the earth, from the time that it was accursed, became reduced from its native beauty to a state of wretched defilement, and to a garb of mourning, and afterwards was further laid waste in many places by the deluge; still, I assert, it was the same earth which had been created in the beginning.
Young-Earth creationists have long argued that any search for Eden would be fruitless, and not simply because Adam and Eve ate it all. For the Flood geologist, the deluge must have been sufficiently catastrophic to account for the miles of sediment beneath the modern Near East. Therefore, any landscape prior to Noah would have been erased forever. As an example, Ken Ham disagrees sharply with Calvin on this point, speculating rather that the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon, and Gihon were named by Noah’s family to resemble those from paradise lost. Since the biblical names of the four rivers are only meaningful in Hebrew, however, Ham must assume that the Semitic language (which did not even exist in the time of Abraham) was spoken since creation, virtually unchanged. Ham is comfortable with such ad hoc explanations, but for the rest of us, it ought to be a red flag.
Following the logic of Calvin, on the other hand, many authors (e.g. Hill, 2000) have placed Eden somewhere in Babylon, within the modern watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is supposed that the Pishon and Gihon have been lost in time, both in name and volume of water, due to an aridity trend since the birth of Mesopotamian civilization. According to conventional geology, the Persian Gulf coastline was lower ~6,000 years ago and rainfall was more abundant. Therefore, the mythical land of Eden might have actually existed in the cradle of civilization, where at least four rivers converged before draining into the Arabian Sea. From the perspective of any observer living near the delta, the main channel would have appeared to split into four branches upstream.
Four rivers, one problem
Whether we take the advice of most orthodox commentators, who place Eden within Mesopotamia, or side with young-Earth creationists, who preclude all searching with their view of the Flood, I fear we all may have missed the point of the text. First, the concise description in Genesis 2:10–14 explicitly states that the water originated in Eden, more or less like a spring, and not from a distant watershed. Consistent with this portrait, Revelation 22:1–5 describes a new Earth in which a “river of life” flows from God’s throne to the rest of the city. The river in Eden was a river that brought life to the lands beyond its borders, not the other way around.
On the other hand, Ham’s conjecture that the four rivers of paradise were as similar to their modern counterparts as York and New York stems only from a pre-commitment to reading Genesis like an article from Associated Press. Not only does this eisegetical hermeneutic contradict every aspect of the highly imaginative and poetic historiography, but it fails to explain satisfactorily why the author took more space to describe the rivers outside of Eden, using names so familiar to ancient Israel, than to describe the garden itself. Was it just fun historical coincidence that the these rivers bore the same names as those watering nations that so famously enslaved Israel for centuries? Surely Noah named other features after his beloved motherland, so why do we hear of only a few rivers? And why does it matter that the land of Havilah contained geological riches, when mankind was placed far away in a lush garden? Besides, who was mining for gold, bdellium, and onyx, if Adam and Eve were the only humans alive at the time? Either we must concede that the author of Genesis never meant to give us a lesson in pre-Flood geography, or we are drawn to conclude that Genesis is very poorly written history.
Bifurcation of the fountain of paradise
If we allow Genesis 2:10–14 to describe Eden, we come away with the sense that a spring emerged from the ground, watering not only the garden itself (Gen. 2:6) but the valleys of all four rivers. One channel split into four, each of which discharged into a separate basin. The symbolism of naming four rivers is inescapable, as it reflects the four cardinal directions that lead to the four corners of the Earth. In short, the Garden of Eden was portrayed as the source of life to all the Earth. Any attempt to force Genesis 2 into a concrete description of pre-Flood geography, therefore, betrays the literary intent of the text.
This interpretation is supported by the fact that it is geologically impossible for a single spring to supply water to four separate basins. First of all, freshwater springs are ultimately fed by rainfall, which collects in a drainage basin with definitive borders. The rainfall infiltrates the ground to fill an aquifer, which, when exposed to the surface via faults or erosion, provides water to a spring. Therefore, springs are part and parcel of river systems and not, strictly speaking, the source thereof. If the fountain of life in Eden were a free flowing spring, then the real source of water would have been rains falling within the garden or adjacent lands. To maintain the full symbolism of the text, we must suppose that fountain flowed supernaturally and abandon any concordist reading.
The process by which river channels divide into branches (distributaries) is called bifurcation. Channel bifurcation is extremely common in river deltas, where the river meets a stable basin, due to the extreme flatness of the ground surface. Upstream, channel bifurcation occurs when 1) sediments accumulate rapidly within the stream (braided river), 2) flowing water has difficulty eroding a bank stabilized by vegetation (anastomosing river), or 3) the near absence of slope allows a small channel to branch off (meandering river; image below). In all cases, however, the distributaries never venture far from the main river channel. Moreover, these separate branches are short-lived, since even slight imbalances in flow rates will cause one to fill with sediment and the other to deepen. Eventually, one of the distributaries will disappear entirely. These instances of bifurcation do not explain the portrait of Eden.
In very rare instances, a single river may divide into small streams, each of which flows into a separate drainage basin. Perhaps the most notable example comes from a small creek in Wyoming, which divides east and west into “Pacific Creek” and “Atlantic Creek”. The landmark is appropriately named Parting of the Waters:
Since this geological rarity more closely resembles the picture of Eden, it should be immediately apparent why the rivers of Eden probably never constituted a real landscape. First, note the small size of the streams in the photo: the eastward branch flows only ~5 km before dumping into a larger river system. Opposing streams like this can only form in a steep landscape (i.e. mountainous or canyon-cut terrain), which means they will be fed by a relatively small drainage basin that catches very little rain and snow. Unless we envision a scenario in which torrential rains fell only over Eden but nowhere else, we could not explain how the fountain of life watered major portions of the land.
Secondly, the Parting of the Waters illustrates how one stream may split into two, but in Eden, there were four large distributaries. It is entirely possible to imagine how four major tributaries converged into one, as in the ancient Persian Gulf delta. A landscape in which one spring split into four major distributaries, however, is not physically possible, unless we suppose that the water was flowing uphill. In other words, only supernatural processes could explain the portrait of Eden as demanded by a literalistic (young-Earth) reading of Genesis.
The Polemic of Paradise: a divine declaration of war
The most basic principles of geology that describe how rivers flow were known to the ancient readers of Genesis and provide convincing evidence that Genesis 2:10–14 could not have described an ancient geography. It is pointless to speculate, therefore, that following the Flood, Noah’s family named new rivers after their ancient counterparts. So why did the author of Genesis labor to describe them in such detail?
As we familiarize ourselves with the gods of Israel’s neighbors, especially Egypt and Babylon, we find that regular flooding of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers was attributed to divine favor. The ancient epics of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis, which are subverted by the tale of Noah, thus describe catastrophic flooding of the Mesopotamian valley in terms of divine judgement and retribution. Years later, Moses would confront Pharaoh—”Let my people go!”—and challenge the gods of Egypt to duel with the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.1 When Pharaoh took up that challenge, how did God first respond?
Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’” …Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. –Exodus 7:17-20 ESV
The story of the first plague in Egypt does not simply record a wondrous work of God—it was a divine act of war. Battles between the gods were frequently described in similar terms by ancient mythology. In a radical subversion of such mythology, therefore, the Pentateuchal author ensures the people of Israel that it is their God—not any foreign one—who brings life to the lands of the Earth (and so he alone can take it away). Those gods are now deaf and dumb idols, if they ever existed at all.
When we read Genesis 2:10–14, we need not speculate endlessly over the identity of the rivers of paradise. It should be sufficient to note that these rivers, which were at least known by name to ancient Israel, gave life to the habitations of both Israel and her enemies. The polemical nature of this passage ought to be clear by now: the Garden of Israel’s God is mankind’s ultimate hope—a universally accessible hope—for spiritual life. Just as man could not inhabit the ancient Near East without a reliable water supply, so man cannot live truly without every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3).
Historiography in the opening chapters of Genesis does not coincide with our modern standards, primarily because biblical writers were less interested in reconstructing the past with a simple timeline of facts and more interested in determining how the present echoes the past. In my opinion, this fact does not make Genesis any less a form of history or any less authoritative; these writers told ancient stories creatively to effect a better future for God’s people (and it worked!). Any attempt to locate Eden in space and time by the structure of its rivers, therefore, will not only prove futile, but it belies the deepest meaning of the Genesis narrative.
1. The concept of warring deities in the Exodus narrative, specifically against the god of the Nile, was described by Dr. Peter Enns in The Bible Tells Me So (p. 119–123), from which I’ve drawn some inspiration for this post. His discussion was very helpful to me in understanding the plagues of Egypt in polemical terms, similar to the way Genesis 1 seems to allude to Enuma Elish. In his book, Enns also addresses the nature of historiography found in the Hebrew Bible, and how it differs from our modern expectations. I was encouraged to find similarities between his assessment and what I’ve written previously.