Meanwhile, I’m back at my desk busily writing up the results of my study on the historical Adam. (You can follow this in my current Defenders class.) An article which Josh shared with me by Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, on the geological and archaeological evidence concerning the ancient geography of the Persian Gulf, recently stunned me. By way of background, Old Testament scholars have been scratching their heads for centuries about the description of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2.10-14:
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows 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 Gihon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Photo Credit: www.ancient-origins.net
The problem is that this description doesn’t seem to make sense geographically. The Tigris and the Euphrates don’t have a common source, and ancient Mesopotamians knew it. Moreover, the Pishon and the Gihon are unknown in ancient history. Havilah is usually associated with Arabia, but a river there couldn’t have a common source with the Tigris and Euphrates. Neither could a river (like the Nile) that flows around Cush, which is usually identified with Ethiopia. These problems, coupled with the obvious symbolism of the Garden of Eden story, has led most commentators to see the Garden as purely mythological, rather like Narnia. Many interpreters take the four rivers to be surrounding the known world. For example, the great German commentator Gerhard von Rad exclaims, “What an inexpressible amount of water was in Paradise, if the river, after having watered the garden, could still enclose the entire world with four arms and fructify it! All the water outside Paradise, which supplies all civilizations, is, so to speak, only a remainder or residue from the water of Paradise!” (Von Rad, Genesis , p. 79-80).
On the other hand, the Tigris and Euphrates are indisputedly real rivers known to the Pentateuchal author. The most plausible means of interpreting the passage literally would be to take the four rivers to be tributaries to the river watering the Garden of Eden. Jewish commentator E. A. Speiser thinks that when the text says that the river “flowed out of Eden,” the author assumes the vantage point of someone in the Garden and looking upstream. When verse 10 says that the river of Eden became four “heads” ( rōšìm ), it is referring to the four distant sources or headwaters of the incoming rivers. As one moves out of the Garden of Eden the river divides into the four named tributaries. Such a reversed point of view would place the Garden of Eden on the ancient coastline of the Persian Gulf, into which the Tigris and Euphrates empty. The Pishon and Gihon could then be variously identified as, for instance, the Kerkha and Diyala Rivers or as the Karun and Kerkha Rivers.
But what about the text’s plain statement that the rivers flow out ( yāsā’ ) from Eden, not into it? Several Old Testament passages use yāsā’ to describe a river’s proceeding from its source (see especially Zechariah 14.8, which has, like Genesis 2.10, yāsā ’ min to describe the river’s flowing from Jerusalem to the seas). Commentator Gordon Wenham therefore asks whether “the insoluble geography,” including the rivers’ reversed flow, is not an indication of Genesis’ adoption of “old mythological motifs” in the narrative ( Genesis 1-15 , p. 66).
The anomaly of a “reversed flow,” however, may not be contemplated by the text. For Genesis 2.8 speaks of Eden as a geographic area to the east in which God planted a garden. In 2.10 “Eden” still designates this region, not the garden, stating that the river flowed out of Eden into the garden to water it. In his article in Current Anthropology 51/6 (2010): 849-883, Jeffrey Rose explains that from the time of the last Ice Age (ca. 10,000 BC) until being submerged beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean around 6,000 BC, the Gulf region was a fertile oasis extending all the way to the Straits of Hormuz and watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Karun River draining off the Iranian Plateau, and the now extinct Wadi Batin River flowing across northern Arabia, as well as by subterranean aquifers which surfaced in the region. The four rivers converged in the Ur-Schatt River Valley, whose deeply cut channel is still visible beneath the Persian Gulf waters. If the Garden of Eden is conceived by the author of Genesis to lie in the Gulf Oasis, then truly a river (the Ur-Schatt), fed by the four named “heads,” flowed out of Eden into the garden. On this view, Cush may be identified, not with Ethiopia, but with the region of the Kassites in western Iran (Genesis 10.8), while association of Havilah with Arabia remains. The Wadi Batir dried up between 3,500 and 2,000 B.C., about the same time that the Sumerian civilization was born. People could easily have preserved memory of that river and perhaps even transmitted earlier traditions of the Oasis’s existence.
The Gulf Oasis: 50,000 BCE - 10,000 BCE (Dold. 2016, Lambeck. 1996; Fairbanks, R.G. 1989)
Moreover, the outflows of the subterranean aquifers, which at that epoch surfaced on the land, bring to mind the mysterious ’ēd [spring?] of Genesis 2.6 which “went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.” Ancient Sumerian myths seem to mention these outflows. I think, for example, of the land of Dilmun on the shore of the Persian Gulf, of which we are told “from the mouth of the waters running underground, fresh waters ran out of the ground for her. The waters rose up from it into her great basins. Her city drank water aplenty from them. Dilmun drank water aplenty from them. Her pools of salt water indeed became pools of fresh water” ( Enki and Ninhursaga 50-62). Today these subterranean rivers, linked to the underground aquifer systems, still deliver fresh water into the Gulf through the ocean floor.
So the Garden of Eden seems to be described accurately as a real place, even if it is described in figurative and symbolic imagery. Amazing! This is just a taste of what I’m learning through this study.