101 Bible Secrets
Bible Secret Number 96 

Where Was the Garden of Eden?

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Just where was the original Garden of Eden and how did the four rivers flow into it?

It must first be realized that when the Bible refers to the Land of Eden, it is not speaking about a few acres of land. It was a vast region comparable to the countries of Assyria, Cush (sometimes rendered Ethiopia), Egypt or Canaan. And inside this extensive territory called Eden, God planted a Garden. Even the garden must not be considered small because four rivers could be traced from the Garden into adjacent geographical areas. Though it is not possible to give precise measurements of the Land of Eden or the Garden, it must be understood that these regions were quite spacious and not small insignificant tracts of land that many imagine today.

Now let us notice what Moses said about the river system associated with Eden and the Garden. He said that "a river went out of Eden to water the Garden and from there [from the Garden] it divided and became into four heads." (Genesis 2:10). The use of the word "heads" (Hebrew: rosh) in relation to the four rivers gives the impression to us in the western world that Moses is talking about the headstreams of headwaters of the four riverstheir sources. But this concept was not what Moses meant. In the article on "Eden," McClintok and Strong states: "in no instance is rosh (literally, "head") applied as the source of a river" (Cyclopaedia, vol. III, p.53, italics and parenthesis are theirs). This is very important to realize because it is this misconception that has given interpreters the most trouble in comprehending this pre-flood river system mentioned by Moses.

In the first ages of the world in the Middle Eastern society, the head of a river was at its mouth, not at its source. The same principle of interpretation applied to a description for streets and highways. The beginning of a street or highway (its head) was determined from a main intersection or where the roads branched off from one another. The head was like being the hub of a wheel from which the spokes branched outward. The head was not at the end of the spokes near the wheel but at the hub. There is a clear reference to this type of circumstance in the Scripture when it speaks about the branching of two roads. In Ezekiel 21:21 it says the King of Babylon will journey on a road going southward and he will come to a fork in the road (the road branches off into two roadsone going one direction and the other in a different direction). This fork in the road is called by Ezekiel "the head of the two roads." To Ezekiel, the head of that road was where the King of Babylon started his journey toward Jerusalem. It was not at Jerusalem itself.

This was also the case with the intersection of streets inside cities and towns (where streets crossed one another). The intersection would act as a "hub." Jeremiah spoke of such an intersection as the head of city streets that crossed one another or were at right angles to one another. He used the phrase: "at the head of every street" (Lamentations 4:1). The Jerusalem Bible interprets Jeremiah and translates the phrase as "the corner of every street." Thus in the early Hebrew way of looking at it, the head of a street in a city represented the "hub" where the streets intersected or where they divided. That is, streets having their origins in the extremities on the city (near its walls) would come together at an intersectionat the "hub" (which was called the head).

And the same principle applied to rivers. Where rivers came together, or a river intersected with a larger river, this juncture was called the head of the river that joined the other. The word "head" did not describe the source (the beginning) of a river, but it signified a place where it intersected with another river or flowed into the ocean. And so it was with Moses. In his description of this river system, he was simply giving a geographical description of the head (that is, the central "hub") where the four rivers branched out from one another.

Now, while this is true, we need to be careful here. This is because of our modern tendency to describe a river from its source to its mouth. But this was not the concept of Moses and those who lived in ancient times. Moses’ direction of thinking was upstream – not downstream! This is a significant distinction which must be understood and some scholars have recognized it. Professor R.K. Harrison said this was the most appropriate solution in making sense out of the river system Moses was describing. He said: "Probably the most suitable answer concerning the actual location of the Garden of Eden is to think of the river that watered the garden and thereafter became four 'branches' as actually comprising the beginning or juncture going upstream from a point in southern Mesopotamia" (ISBE, new edition, vol. II, p.17, italics mine). Professor Harrison is absolutely right.

What Moses meant was that four rivers came together to form one river at the Garden, not that one river separated to become four rivers. When this proper interpretation is applied then Moses’ account becomes sensible indeed. It shows that Moses placed the Land of Eden as having its southern border at the head of the Persian Gulf and that the Garden itself was located upriver a few miles at the place where the four rivers came together. The actual river that "went out of Eden" was the one that left the Garden (where the four rivers became one river) and then the one river entered the Persian Gulf at the coastal region representing the southern border of Eden. Moses was describing his river system going upstream and the head of the four rivers was where they separated from the one river to provide a vast watershed system that reached to their sources. In our modern way of thinking, we call the mouth of a river what Moses called the head.

This same procedure was normally adopted by the Egyptians when they spoke of the Nile along which Moses was born and reared. The ancient Egyptians in their religious superstition often regarded the Nile as a god and they would personify it. The god Amon was such a personification. It a hymn dedicated to Amon it said that the Nile issued forth from "the two caverns which are under his feet, the Nile comes forth from the grotto under his sandals" (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p.369). This shows that the head of the god Amon (personified as the Nile) was downstream while the feet were located at the source of the river. This is no doubt one of the reasons that people today say the "mouth" of a river is where it exits into the ocean, a lake or another stream. The mouth, of course, is always situated in the head of anything. From this point of view, the mouth of a river being considered the head is not as strange to us of modern times as it might at first appear.

With these geographical indications of Moses in mind, it becomes rather easy to identify the location of the Land of Eden, as well as the Garden and even the two mysterious rivers called the Pison and the Gihon. Since we are told that the Euphrates and the Tigris were two of the four rivers that came together to form the one large river that debouched into the Persian Gulf, and that the river "went out of Eden," then the Land of Eden had as its southern boundary the coastal region of the Persion Gulf.

Even the early Mesopotamian records (discovered at Nippur in southern Babylon about 70 years ago) describe a place called Dilmun at the head of the Persian Gulf that resembled very much the biblical description of the Garden in Eden. The New Bible Dictionary (article "Eden") said the tablets showed this area as a pleasant place in which neither sickness nor death were known. It was called "the land of the living," the home of the immortals and in which there was a sacred tree. There were certain similarities between this Mesopotamian notion of an earthly paradise and the biblical Eden and some scholars have concluded that the Genesis account is dependent upon the Mesopotamian story. Whatever the case, this "paradise" was located around the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Remarkably, this is precisely where Moses said his four rivers came together to form one river at the Garden and then the river exited into the Persian Gulf. All of this is easily determined if one realizes that Moses was giving directions about his river system going upstream, not downstream!

This proper understanding of what Moses meant can now help us in identifying the two mysterious rivers (the Pison and Gihon) which have given commentators so much trouble in locating. Since two of the rivers which came together in the Garden region of Eden were the Euphrates and the Tigris, then the Pison and Gihon also had to enter the Garden in this same general area. Moses said both rivers had "circuitous" courses (Genesis 2:11, 13) and he mentioned the geographical areas through which they flowed. Interestingly, there are (even today) two such rivers that precisely fit the description of Moses. These rivers are still very much in existence.

Let us look at the first river that Moses mentioned. It was the Pison. He said that it encompassed (in a circuitous fashion) the land of Havilah. Just were is Havilah? This is pretty easy to identify. In the Bible is the phrase "from Havilah to Shur" (Genesis 25:18). Since the phrase has the ring of describing an "A to Z" geographical swing (that is, from one extreme point to another), then Havilah has to be in the opposite direction from Shur. It is well known that Shur was a district abutting to Egypt and near the Red Sea. Havilah, then, was located oppositely from Shur.

This means that Havilah was in the distant east from Shur. This would place it at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. And indeed, the early classical geographer, Eratosthenes (quoted by Strabo), located the (C)Havlotaioi (which certainly apears to be a Greek rendition of the word Havilah) in an area just to the north of the Persian Gulf (M’Clintok and Strong, vol. IV, p.100). This would place the people of Havilah (and the area of Havilah itself) somewhat eastward from southern Babylonia and reaching into the Persian highlands. And what do we find coming from that region? There is a river flowing from the area into the Euphrates/Tigris river system (in southern Mesopotamia) that is called the Karun (which has a major tributary named the Khersan). The earlier name for this river must have been the Pison that Moses talked about.

The other river mentioned by Moses was the Gihon. It was also "circuitous" and encompassed the land of Cush (Genesis 2:13). And true to what Moses said, just to the north and east of Babylon were the mountains of the Cassites (mentioned in the early Mesopotamian records and certainly representing the Cushites). This river also flowed into the Euphrates/Tigris river system in southern Mesopotamia just as Moses states. It is today called the Karkheh.

All these four rivers flow together (or once flowed together) to form the one major river mentioned by Moses that finally debouched into the Persian Gulf. We will show later that before the flood of Noah, this one major river that left the Garden (formed by the four tributaries) flowed many more miles south and eastward than it does today before it entered the Persian Gulf because (as this book will show) the level of the Gulf was lower by about 30 feet before the flood (as were all ocean levels).

What we find in this geographical description given by Moses is a perfectly proper account that people in the fifteenth century B.C. would have understood without difficulty. Moses simply gave his description of the location of Eden by starting at the head of the river (at its mouth where it debouched into the Persian Gulf) and then proceeded upstream to the Garden where the river divided into four heads. From the Garden he continued his description of the rivers by informing the Israelites about the mountainous regions to the east and north of the LAND OF Eden from whence three of the rivers came. He had to give more details about the Pison and Gihon because they were smaller rivers and encompassed lands to the east of Mesopotamia that were unfamiliar to the Israelites. He gave no detailed information about the course of the Euphrates because the Israelites would have known all about that river already.

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