[b-hebrew] Eden & Rivers - Genesis 2:10

Heard, Christopher Christopher.Heard at pepperdine.edu
Thu May 12 10:52:33 EDT 2005

On May 11, 2005, at 8:50 PM, <tladatsi at charter.net>  
<tladatsi at charter.net> wrote:

> The text of Genesis 2:10 does not say that the four rivers
> flow into or through Eden.  Rather a single river leaves
> Eden and then forms the *head(waters)* for four rivers,
> including the Tigris and Euphrates.  The head waters of the
> Tigris and Euphrates are very close to one another in
> Eastern Turkey not far from Mt. Ararat.  Several other
> rivers have their headwaters in that region, e.g. the
> Araxes and Keyhan (Gihon?).  So, based on a prima facie
> reading of Genesis 2:10, Eden would be in Eastern Turkey,
> not in Mesopotemia.

Hello everyone,

First, a "thank you" to Jack Tladatsi for drawing us back to the  
actual wording of the text. Proposals that locate Eden in southern  
Mesopotamia must of necessity "rewrite" the Genesis 2:10-14  
description in order to locate Eden at the *confluence*, rather than  
the *origin*, of the Euphrates and Tigris.

As Jack wrote according to Genesis 2:10, the river from Eden  
"separates" or "diverges" [Heb פרד = PRD] into four "head(waters)."  
However near together the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates  
might be--according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the headwaters  
are "within 50 miles of each other"--there is no single river that  
"separates" or "diverges" to become these two.

Moreover, the other two rivers present almost insuperable difficulties.

No such river as the Pishon is mentioned anywhere else in the Bible.  
According to Gen 2:11, the Pishon "is the one that surrounds" or "is  
the one that flows around" [Heb הוא הסבב = HW) HSBB] the whole  
land of Havilah. Notice, if you please, that the narrator acts as if  
the readers know this river; the narrator does not say "the Pishon  
flows around ..." but "the Pishon, that's the one that flows  
around ..." Oddly, though, the Pishon is not mentioned anywhere else  
in the Hebrew Bible. In the two other verses where Havilah is used in  
the Tanakh as a toponym, it is in the phrase "from Havilah to  
Shur" (Gen 25:18; 1 Sam 15:7). Both verses specify that Shur is east  
of Egypt; both have the conceptual starting point of "from Havilah to  
Shur" as southern Palestine (the contexts are Ishmael's wandering/ 
settling, from Beersheba southwestward, and Saul's pursuit of the  
Amalekites); both thus suggest that Havilah is somewhere in the Negeb  
or the northern Sinai peninsula. The other Biblical references to  
"Havilah" use this as a personal name of one of Noah's descendants, a  
son of Cush and brother of Seba, uncle of Sheba and Dedan. If the  
personal name were transferred to a toponym, this would draw Havilah  
farther south, into southwestern Arabia. In either event, there is no  
river that "flows around" or "surrounds" either place. Going with the  
Gen 25:18/1 Sam 15:7 location of Havilah, one might, I suppose,  
suggest that the Biblical נהל מצרים = Nahal Mizraim ("Wadi of  
Egypt") could constitute a "river[bed]" that flows "through" Havilah,  
but this would not fit the verb סבב = SBB, nor would this river  
originate from a common source shared with the Tigris and Euphrates.

Finally, there is the Gihon. The only water source known elsewhere in  
scripture as Gihon is the spring outside of Jerusalem. This Gihon  
certainly does not "flow around" (again, סבב = SBB) the whole land  
of Cush, whether you associate this Cush with southern Arabia,  
Ethiopia, or the land of the Kassites. There is no river that "flows  
around" or "surrounds" Cush-as-southern-Arabia or Cush-as-Ethiopia,  
nor indeed Cush-as-the-land-of-the-Kassites. Even if you follow  
Delitzsch and others in locating the origins of the Kassites up in  
the Urartu region, perhaps along the Araxes river that Jack  
mentioned, rather than the Zagros highlands, there still is no river  
that "surrounds" that region. And the Araxes does not split off from  
a source common to it, the Euphrates, and the Tigris.

So we have in Genesis 2:10-14 a description of a single river that  
splits to become four rivers: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Pishon  
(which flows around Havilah) and the Gihon (which flows around Cush).  
The Pishon and Gihon are completely unidentifiable from these  
descriptions; no such rivers exist, and if they did, they wouldn't  
share headwaters with the Tigris and Euphrates. In fact, the Tigris  
and the Euphrates don't issue from a common source river. The  
geography of the rivers is quite impossible, if we actually take the  
narrator's description at face value. We are drawn northward by the  
Tigris and Euphrates but southward by the Pishon and Gihon. Unless  
(a) the narrator is using the toponymns Havilah, Gihon, and Cush in a  
way that departs radically from all other biblical uses of those  
toponyms, *and* (b) these waterways have been radically altered in  
the course of recent (since the narrator's day!) geological history  
such that they once originated from a common "ur-river" but now have  
individual headwaters, albeit "within 50 miles of each other" for the  
two rivers we can actually identify, then the geography is simply  

Eden is nowhere.

And the narrator knows it, and expects readers to realize it too. The  
geography of the rivers, which has no substantial function in the  
plot, has as at least one of its major functions to signal to the  
reader not to look for Eden on a map. I suggest (this is not yet well- 
developed enough to call it an argument) that this geography is  
analogous the chronological "confusion" in the books of Daniel and  
Judith. As is well known, the storyline of the book of Judith is  
"hopelessly confused" from an historical point of view: in it,  
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Assyria in Nineveh, makes war on one  
Arphaxad, who ruled the Medes in Ecbatana, as well as Arioch, king of  
Elam (see Gen 14:1). Similarly, the book of Daniel begins by  
displacing Nebuchadnezzar chronologically, suggesting that  
Nebuchadnezzar (who ruled Babylon 605-562 BCE) raided the Jerusalem  
temple in the third year of Jehoiakim (606 BCE--before  
Nebuchadnezzar's accession to the throne of Babylon) whereas all  
other biblical references to this event place it in the 11th and last  
year of Jehoiakim's reign (597 BCE). These chronological  
displacements are not, in my judgment, simple mistakes; they are  
intentional disorientations that signal to discerning readers not to  
read these works as "histories" but to look for other value.  
Similarly, it seems to me quite clear that the narrator of Genesis 2  
takes a moment to locate Eden precisely nowhere, in an impossible  
geography, so that readers will not spend their valuable time trying  
to find it on a map, but will attend to other purposes in the narrative.


R. Christopher Heard
Assistant Professor of Religion
Pepperdine University
Malibu, California 90263-4352

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