As you read through the Bible, there are two extremes to which people can turn. Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We get so caught up in the details that we miss the sweep of Scripture and the broad teachings that God is trying to express. Other times, we skip over details that can add colour and depth to God’s message. One of the details I’ve not thought deeply about until recently is the location of the garden of Eden. In one sense, it doesn’t matter. The garden was ruined through Adam’s sin. Paradise is no longer paradise and so there’s no sense in looking for it. But reading a commentary by John Sailhamer last month showed me that, in another sense, an awareness of the geography of Eden can help in shedding light on some of the symbolism of the Bible. Let me explain how.
In Genesis 2:10-14, the division of four rivers in the garden of Eden is described.
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.
There is a decreasing amount of detail for each of the four rivers, likely because they are listed in order from least to most well-known. The Tigris River flows from southern Turkey through Iraq into the Persian Gulf. It is an imposing 1,750 km long. The Euphrates measures 3,000 km and was even more famous in biblical times. It originates in eastern Turkey and flows through Syria and Iraq. Today, neither the Pishon River nor the Gihon River can be located. Given that they are both described in the past tense in Genesis 2, “the one that flowed” (vv. 11, 13) rather than the present tense, “which flows” (v. 14), it is possible that they had already ceased to function by the time that Moses penned Genesis. While we can’t pinpoint Pishon or the “land of Havilah” that it flowed around, we do know approximately where Gihon was located. It is described as “the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.” Cush in biblical times is associated with the area at the border of Egypt. So Eden was marked by two rivers that flow through Syria and Iraq, a third which bordered Egypt and a fourth which we can’t identify. That puts Eden roughly in the stretch of land that came to be known as the Promised Land, the nation of Israel.
Sound far-fetched? I thought so until Sailhamer pointed out Genesis 15:18. There, God makes the promise to Abraham to give him “this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” Was God deliberately describing the borders of the Promised Land with language that pointed people back to His description of Eden? If so, then the promise to Abraham was to provide a return to Eden, in a sense. In fact, God took Abraham from Babylon, the home of the Tower of Babel and the great city of pride and rebellion, and promised to give him a home in Eden. That’s why much of the imagery in the temple (e.g. a lampstand shaped like a tree, angels, fruit) pointed back to Eden. And it shows why the promise of “the land” was so significant – it pointed to a return to all that humanity had lost when it turned its back on God. It also shows why Israel’s exile was such a terrible judgment. It was as if they were being banished from Eden again and sent to Babylon.
The Promised Land doesn’t just point back to the garden of Eden though. It ultimately points forward to the new creation we’ve been promised. Many people think of salvation for a believer as an eternal spirit-like existence in heaven. In Revelation 22, however, we’re promised a new heaven and a new earth. That new earth is a restored Eden, complete with “the river of the water of life” (v. 1), “the tree of life” (v. 2), and fruitfulness beyond measure (v. 2). Many of us may never visit the Promised Land, but, by faith in Jesus Christ, we live with the certain hope that we will one day settle in the renewed Promised Land, Eden restored, and life will never be the same. We have a great hope and a great God!
In awe of Him,