A Paradise Lost: In Search of Eden
Nothing else has fascinated both archaeologists and theologians alike more than the identity to the location of man’s paradise lost; that is, the Garden of Eden. Throughout history, the idea of a paradise was a common theme in almost all ancient cultures. The Sumerians called it Dilmun (commonly identified as the modern day island of Bahrain). The Greeks called it the Garden of the Hesperides. The idea was not a unique one to the Biblical author(s), however the Book of Genesis does provide us with the most details; albeit vague, to its location. What was Eden and where was it located? We will need to dive through the ancient sources at our disposal so that we may decipher the enigma that is Eden.
Genesis 2:8-9 informs us of a garden set to the east, trees and animals a plenty, which a river flowed through and parted into four: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates. The Septuagint (or LXX) confirms the translations of the Tigris and Euphrates, although the Pishon and Gihon continue to remain a mystery. The identification of the two rivers have led many to look to Mesopotamia and more recently the submerged regions of the Persian Gulf, although how much of these details can we consider to be credible?
It would seem that geography was not the author’s strongest feature. For instance, we know where both the Tigris and Euphrates meet in southern Mesopotamia and where the rivers flow to in the North and Northwest. As for the river Gihon, a literal reading of Genesis 2:13 from the Hebrew source translates to: ‘And [the] name [of] the second [is] the river Gihon. It circles around all [the] land [of] Cush.’ We clearly read that Gihon flowed from the Persian Gulf and parted to circle Cush. According to Hebrew and Assyrian source, Cush is identified as Ethiopia. Yes, the very same Ethiopia that resides on the separate continent of Africa. For this reason, many have identified the river Nile with Gihon, although such an identification would invalidate the original statement in that it parted alongside three others from the same river. Coincidently, 1Kings 1:33 mentions a spring near Jerusalem by the name of Gihon. The Hebrew name translates to ‘bursting forth,’ a generic term that can describe just about anything.
When we read beyond the Book of Genesis, we do find additional references to Eden:
Isaiah 37:12: Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed, as Gozan, and Haran, and Rezeph, and the children of Eden which were in Telassar?
Ezekiel 27:23: Haran, and Canneh, and Eden, the merchants of Sheba, Asshur, and Chilmad, were thy merchants.
Ezekiel 31:16: I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit: and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth.
Does this mean that Eden was still around at the time the Book of Ezekiel was written (during the Babylonian Exile)? Isaiah speaks of the children of Eden as a nation that still existed, while
Ezekiel hints at Eden being a merchant town. It is listed along with other locations situated in northern Mesopotamia, southern Anatolia and the northern Levant. Does this hint at Eden being located somewhere within this outline? When we reread Ezekiel 31:16, we observe the verse confirming that Eden is in the land of Lebanon, a region well renowned for its cedars.
This is further confirmed when identifying the proper etymology for the name Eden. Traditionally, scholars believed it to be a Hebrew rendering of the Sumerian word edin translating to ‘steppe.’ Archaeology, however, has shown this word to be Aramaic in origin, a Semitic language, widely used to the North of ancient Israel and in ancient Lebanon and Syria.
Discovered at Tell el Fakhariyah (on one of the tributaries of the Khabur River), Syria in 1979, was a statue containing a bilingual inscription. Dating to approximately the late 9th century BCE, the statue provides the oldest evidence of the Aramaic language. Written on the skirt of the man, the bilingual inscription was inscribed in Assyrian cuneiform and the Semitic linear alphabet in an Aramaic dialect. It is this bilingual text that holds the key to the earliest identification and interpretation of the word ‘eden.’ Used as a verb, ‘dn corresponds to the Assyrian verb for ‘wealth or luxuriance.’ This translation reinforces the idea of a paradise behind the Genesis narrative.