The Four Rivers of Eden

There have been many theories regarding the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden where Judeo-Christian religions believe man was first created by God. However with careful study the Hebrew Bible account offers clues that go unnoticed or become confused when researchers rely on modern translations. So is it possible that after a close look at Genesis chapter 2, verses 8-15, that the location of the fabled garden of paradise will be revealed?

"Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" Wenzel Peter

“Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” Wenzel Peter

 

 Translated from the Hebrew Bible, the location of the Garden of Eden reads as follows;

8 And the LORD God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed.9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads.11 The name of the first is Pishon; that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;12 and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone.13 And the name of the second river is Gihon; the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Cush.14 And the name of the third river is Tigris; that is it which goeth toward the east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

The stories in Genesis likely became consolidated into their current form concurrent with or after the period of Babylonian captivity of the Jews during the 6th century BCE. At this time the literate elite of the defeated kingdom of Judah were living in Babylon.1

The world of ancient Iraq around Babylon was focused on the two great rivers which bisected the region, the Tigris and the Euphrates. At the dawn of history, when the lands were known as Sumer and Akkad, the area between the two rivers from Babylon southward was made into a network of canals. For people living along these waterways the rivers were more than just sources of vital irrigation water. They were also the conduits for every kind of commerce. With this worldview in mind the seven verses in Genesis that describe Eden’s location can take a different meaning.

8 And the LORD God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed.

The word Eden is interpreted by Biblical scholars to mean “A Land in the East.” This understanding is based on Genesis 3:8 where “God planted a garden eastward in Eden.” However without a reference to what Eden is east of, the direction is of little help. Researchers usually turn to the reference of the four rivers of Eden for further clues.

Another analysis could follow the origin of the word Eden itself which may be related to the Akkadian word edinu2 which means desert or steppe land. Or Eden could be similar to the piece of land known in Sumerian as the Gu-edin, which was the subject of a battle between two ancient city-states.3 The Sumerian word seemed to indicate a fertile irrigated land while the former did not. However Sumerian was a dead language well before the time of the Hebrews so the Akkadian word must be given more weight.

Interestingly, there was also an Iron Age kingdom in Syria named Eden which was destroyed by the Assyrians. However it appears there is no correlation between this kingdom and the mysterious garden of paradise.

9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Here in verse 9 the garden is planned out. Not only should the garden be beautiful but it should provide abundant food. This would indicate a need for irrigation and therefore access to a major river. Also, we are told, the garden contains two special trees, one, the tree of life, grants immortality and is known throughout other myths.4 The second tree is rather more unique to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. All of this indicates the perfect garden that has come to be thought of as paradise.

10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads.

Modern readers of the Bible often mistake the phrase “from thence it was parted and became four heads” to mean that the headwaters of four rivers originate in Eden. In fact the exact opposite is indicated. From Eden one river flows into four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates, these rivers then go outward to become separate rivers, each forming its own head. Simply put, a river flowed through or near the garden and then joined four separate rivers.

In verse 10, although the writers had many words available to denote river, the ancient word used is nahar5 which generally refers to a large river like the Nile or Euphrates, but can also mean the sea.

Another common error that is made in identifying these rivers is our modern perspective that a river begins at its source and then ends where it disperses into the sea. For an ancient riverine people, who had never seen a picture of their world from a satellite view, a river was a course you could travel. As indicated by the use of the word nahar a river could also be the sea. Once you emerged into a sea from a river you were still traveling on a nahar.

In antiquity the Tigris and Euphrates were connected by multiple canals effectively uniting the two rivers into one vast watery network. For a person standing along an irrigation channel that connected the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the region of Babylon or Ur, the waterways available to you would indeed head off in four directions.

11 The name of the first is Pishon; that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;

The name Pishon comes from the root puwsh,6 which means to grow fat, spread out, or be scattered. If a traveler went south on the Tigris this is exactly the condition they would find as the river gives way to marshland.

12 and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone.

Following the river into the sea and continuing along its eastern bank will take a traveler around the harsh deserts of southern Iran and Pakistan. Indeed the word Havilah can be traced to the root chuwl which means circular, to twist or whirl, or writhe in pain and the root chowl which means sand.7

The identification of Havilah as a source for bdellium, a resin for incense making, and onyx further points to Iran and Pakistan. The Greek writer Theophrastus,8 and Pliny the Elder9 both identified areas in Afghanistan as the source of bdellium and even today Pakistan is one of the few suppliers of Onyx.

13 And the name of the second river is Gihon; the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Cush.

Gihon comes from the root giyach10 which means to gush forth. This may well have described how an ancient traveler would experience the mighty Euphrates as it finally emptied into the Persian Gulf. By following the western bank of this course the traveler would eventually find themselves rounding the Arabian peninsula and encountering Africa wherein lies the expected land of Cush, ancient Ethiopia.

 

The Four Rivers of Eden -Arianna Ravenswood

The Four Rivers of Eden -Arianna Ravenswood

14 And the name of the third river is Tigris; that is it which goeth toward the east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Modern maps still show how the Tigris River follows the eastern flank of the land known as Assyria by the Greeks and Asshur by its inhabitants. The Euphrates was presumably so well known that it needed no appellation. This leaves us with four rivers that are joined by canals forming a large x-shaped river network.

So where does this place the garden? If we look for a river that flows out of the steppe and enters near the joint course of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers the eye cannot help but be drawn to the Diyala River in eastern Iraq. Even today Iraq’s Diyala Province is known for its oranges and boasts one of the largest olive groves in the region.

Was the Garden of Eden really a trading port near the Diyala River?

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

The description of the garden frames it as being the center of a trade network. Locating the Garden of Eden based on the worldview of merchant trade coincides with the actual term for garden in the ancient text which is gan.11 The word gan specifically refers to a fenced in area that was likely used to corral animals as well as to secure property, in this case presumably for trade.

The introduction of man into the garden to “dress and keep” further reveals the language of commerce. The term “dress” is abad12 in Hebrew. Abad means to serve as a laborer or in this case perhaps as a husbandman. This meaning is reinforced by the word “keep” which in the ancient text is shamar,13 a word that means to stand guard over.

The records from ancient Iraq are replete with contractual arrangements between landlords who owned large herds and groves and the shepherds and guardsmen who tended their flocks and foodstuffs as specialized laborers. The advent of large scale animal husbandry and irrigated agriculture together with the connection to the world by vast trade networks is part of the legacy of Mesopotamia. Fenced in groves and secure animal pens would have been commonplace.

For over two thousand years the commercial center of the world was Babylonia, where the Jews languished in exile. Here kings claimed dominion over the four quarters of the earth and the earth’s markets could be reached by following one of its four great waterways to the North, South, East and West.

 

Future articles will seek to shed more light on the historical context of this myth, revealing that perhaps we know of Eden by another name.

 

Sources

Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London, 1992.

Strong, James, (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nelson, Nashville, 1990)

Santag, A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, 2004

The Hebrew Bible

 Citations

1Entire volumes have been written about the who, what, where, when and why of the writing of Genesis. For our purposes we will try out the mainstream theory of authorship around the time of the Babylonian captivity and see how it fits the facts. Also it is worth noting that the Patriarchal tradition of the Jews identified Abraham’s family as having come from Ur, a city state in Southern Iraq that was undergoing a revival at the same time the Jews were in Babylon. It is difficult to imagine an association between Canaanites and the much older and then somewhat decrepit city of Ur without a Babylonian connection.

2 Santag 66

3 Roux 141

4 One common reference to the tree/plant of life is in the Gilgamesh Epic tablet 12. Although this plant did not grant complete immortality neither were Sumerian gods seen as being truly immortal but rather extremely long lived.

5 Strong’s 91

6 Strong’s 114

7 Strong’s 41

8 Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, 2000 pg 109

9 Pliny, Natural History  12.19

10 Strong’s 27

11Strong’s 28

12 Strong’s 101

13 Strong’s 145