Do the Four Rivers Lead Us to the Garden of Eden?
In the Biblical Book of Genesis, chapter 2, the description of the Four Rivers of Eden provides clues for locating the lost garden of paradise. Following these clues leads to a connection between the lost city of Akkad and Eden.
The Nature of Eden’s River
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 originated 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 a river, the ancient Hebrew word used is nahar which generally refers to a large river like the Nile or Euphrates, but can also mean the sea.
A map of the Tigris – Euphrates in the area of ancient Babylon (CC BY-SA 2.5)
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. Also in ancient times the two great rivers entered the Persian Gulf separately. For a person standing along an irrigation canal that connected the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the region of Babylon, the waterways available to you would indeed head off in four directions.
The Euphrates River (Public Domain)
The Two Ambiguous Rivers
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, 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.
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, and Pliny the Elder 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 giyach, 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 Tigris River in Êlih-Hafizbiniyan (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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 Ashur 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.
Do the Rivers Lead us to Eden?
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.
The Four Rivers of Eden -Arianna Ravenswood (Source: theancientneareast.com)
15 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. 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 as tribute or for trade.
The Akkad Connection
An ancient text, "The Cursing of Akkad," tells of the times following the fall of Akkad, ca 2000 BC, when amidst the Gutian invasions the land was so overcome by chaos and violence that the gardens needed to be placed behind the walls of cities.
The introduction of man into the garden to “dress and keep” further reveals the language of commerce. The term “dress” is abad 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, 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 and well known in Babylonia at the time of the Hebrew Captivity when it is possible the Genesis accounts were written. During this time Akkad and the Akkadian Empire would have been remembered in legends of a golden age that ended due to the sins of its rulers.
The Garden of Eden by Erastus Salisbury Field 1860 (Public Domain)
Akkad, a known trading center, was likely in or near the Diyala Province of Iraq. Placing it East of Babylon. This matches the claim of Eden being a garden eastward. For over two thousand years the commercial center of the world was Babylonia, where, for a time, the Jews languished in exile. Here kings claimed dominion over the four quarters of the Earth. The Earth’s markets could be reached by following one of its four great waterways to the North, South, East and West and on the eastern side of those rivers was a fertile steppe land that is replete with gardens to this day.
Top image: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, (Public Domain)
Dalby Andrew, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, British Museum Press, 2000
Pliny, Natural History
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