Fact or Fiction: The Garden of Eden

Having established in the previous “Fact or Fiction” post that Adam and Eve, whether or not they were so called in their lifetime, were the first two human beings created by God and are the common ancestors of all other people, let’s now take a look at Eden, the place where Adam and Eve were created, according to the Bible. Like many other Bible stories, the story of the garden from Genesis 3 is often accused of being mythical, symbolic, or simply inaccurate. Scholars purporting this view usually base their explanation on two claims:

  • There is no known place called “Eden,” or reference to it outside the Bible. Archeologists have not found remains of any garden matching the description of the Garden of Eden, or using that name.
  • The Bible mentions four rivers in reference to the location of the Garden: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris (also formerly referred to in some texts as the Hiddekel) and the Euphrates. It states that these four rivers came from a common source – one river in Eden that watered the garden and then divided into the four other rivers. Currently, two rivers called the Tigris and the Euphrates run through the Fertile Crescent, but there is no trace of the other two rivers, or of the common source. Does it not stand to reason, therefore, to assume that the Biblical account is either symbolic and mythical, not meant to refer to an actual place, or inaccurate?

Biblical Account

Let’s begin by clarifying what the Bible actually says about Eden. First of all, we usually equate Eden with the garden, and have grown accustomed to the phrase “Garden of Eden.” However, Genesis does not refer to a “Garden of Eden,” but to a garden in Eden (Gen 2: 8). It follows that Eden was not a garden, but a region of land. The Garden planted by God lay within the region of Eden. Also according to Genesis, the main river that then split into four originated not in the Garden, but in Eden, and passed through or by the Garden, able to water it. The Bible does not tell us the expanse of Eden, or how far the source river traveled before reaching the Garden of Eden.

The Bible uses the word Eden when referring to the said region. We perceive Eden as a proper name. In ancient Hebrew, however, the word was simply a descriptive adjective, meaning a paradise, or a lush and plentiful land. It is possible that the word originated in the Hebrew language as a derivative of the Hebrew root dn, or “abundant.” The word is also very close to an ancient Sumerian word, edin, a noun for wilderness, desert or plain. Based on the theory of the scholars who claim that the Hebrew word Eden came from dn, and therefore mean “abundance” or “paradise” from the beginning, the Biblical reference to Eden essentially states that God planted a garden within a lush, abundant region. Based on the theory that Eden was derived from the Sumerian term edin, it would follow that, according to the Bible, God planted a garden in a flat desert or wilderness.

Neither of these explanations seems to lack credibility, and both hint at the region being somewhere in the area now known as the Middle East, which could be accurately described by the Sumerians as a desert or wilderness, and accurately described by the Hebrews as a paradise, or lush, abundant land, given that the region, watered by numerous rivers, was a land of plenty. Even natural science has shown that, thousands of years ago, at least large parts of these desert countries would have been green. Historical and archeological evidence has also shown that the earliest civilizations, such as ancient Sumer, began here in the Middle East. Far from decrying Biblical accuracy, these historical facts give credibility to the Bible’s claims. It makes perfect sense that the earliest civilizations began in the vicinity of the place where man himself was created and life began. Planes and cars didn’t exist back then – travel was slow and wearisome. Given that the time associated with the beginning of the early ancient civilizations corresponds fairly closely to years shortly after the creation account as established in the Bible, people wouldn’t have been able to migrate far, but would have begun their civilizations in the region they had already been occupying.

Thus far, the Biblical account of Eden can be seen not only as possible and plausible, but also as accurate based on historical, archeological and natural accounts detailing the origin and development of civilization.

Where Are the Rivers?

This brings us to the second central issue brought up regarding the Garden. Where was it? Where are the rivers associated with it? Some scholars and apologists, in defense of the Bible, propose that the garden can be located with fair accuracy due to the well-known Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that pass through the Fertile Crescent. Given that these rivers correspond to two of the rivers mentioned in Genesis, and the area of the Fertile Crescent corresponds with the description of Eden as both a land of lush/abundance and a flat wilderness, they seem to be accurate landmarks. According to this theory, the other two rivers, the Pishon and the Gihon, were two additional tributaries that have since dried up. While this theory is plausible, it is not the most convincing for two reasons:

Even had the Pishon and the Gihon dried up over time, we should still be able to find traces of their existence and verify their identity and relationship to the Tigris and the Euphrates.

This theory only examines the features of the post-flood world. However, the creation of Adam and Eve and the account of the Garden in Eden given in Genesis occurred prior to the Great Flood.

The pre-flood world was very different from the later world in various ways. Scientists have verified, for example, that the terrain, landscaping on the earth’s crust changed significantly with the flood. The majority of natural disasters, such as destructive storms, earthquakes and volcanoes began in the post-flood world. Theologically, it can be understood that as time passed, the world grew further away from its perfect beginning, and the toll of original sin, by which evil entered the world, began affecting nature more and more. Scientifically, the change can be explained by differences in the earth’s atmosphere before and after the flood. While it has not been definitively proven, many scientists believe that the flood was caused by a sudden collapse of a layer of vapor that had surrounded the earth. The absence of this atmospheric layer left the earth more vulnerable to the forces of nature and radiation, accounting for the onset of natural disasters.

While scientists are able to verify, through sediments and other examinations of the earth’s crust, that the Great Flood occurred, and that the surface of the earth prior to the flood was different than the surface of the earth after the flood, they do not have sufficient information to reconstruct the exact topography of the pre-flood earth. It is therefore impossible to prove beyond a doubt where Eden, the Garden, and the four rivers were located.

Nevertheless, the modern day Tigris and Euphrates can be used as a starting point for determining a few locations that are likely, in spite of the difference between pre-flood and post-flood topography. Two rivers in the post- flood world have been called the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers since antiquity. Two rivers in the pre-flood were also called the Tigris and the Euphrates. This does not prove that current rivers are the pre-flood Tigris and Euphrates, but it does mean that the people after the flood made a connection between the two pairs of rivers, naming the current rivers after the former rivers. Pre-flood geology and topology also indicates that there were two rivers prior to the flood that ran a very similar, although not identical path to the modern day Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. So we have two post-flood rivers that seem to run the same path as two pre-flood rivers. These post-flood rivers were given the same name as the pre-flood rivers. It is therefore likely that the modern day Tigris and Euphrates are in the same location as the pre-flood Tigris and Euphrates. If this is so, it indicates that the land of Eden, and the garden within it, lay in the region now called the Middle East.

Conclusion

The precise location cannot be further determined, given uncertainty regarding the location and identity of the other two rivers, the Pishon and the Gihon. Various theories have been proposed, but none can be verified, given the absence of post-flood rivers by that name, and lack of sufficient topographical knowledge of the pre-flood world. Given what has been uncovered and studied regarding the etymology of Edin and likely proximity of the original Tigris and Euphrates rivers, theories that the land of Eden in general, and the Garden in particular, lay somewhere in Iraq or the modern day Levant region.

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