When we first contemplate Eden, the best place to start is with the exact Biblical verses that talk of Eden. After reading the Bible verses, we will look at possible word origins and translation notes as well as the various locations scholars have suggested for Eden. And finally, we will look at the various meanings and interpretations that can be drawn from the verses about the Garden of Eden.
In this case, I have taken these verses from the St. Joseph Edition, New American Bible.
Genesis, Chapter 2, Verses 8-15:
8 Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed.
9 Out of the ground the Lord God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
10 A river rises in Eden to water the garden; beyond there it divides and becomes four branches.
11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it is the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.
12 The gold of that land is excellent; bdellium and lapis lazuli are also there.
13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it is the one that winds all through the land of Cush.
14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it is the one that flows east of Asshur. The fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.
Word Translation & Origins:
In the Saint Joseph Bible, the notes for this section note that in Sumerian the word Eden is derived from ‘eden’, meaning ‘fertile plain. In Hebrew, a similar-sounding word means ‘delight.’ Together: the garden in Eden could therefore be understood as the ‘garden of delight,’ so that, through the Greek version, it comes to us as ‘paradise,’ literally, a ‘pleasure park.’
The Archeological Study Bible has a slightly different meaning for the words. They state that the Sumerian word ‘eden’ means ‘steppe’ or ‘open field,’ and the identical Semitic word, denotes ‘luxury’ or ‘delight.’ The Garden of Eden is not only the name of the garden in which the first humans resided but also a metaphor for the Garden of God, or Yahweh’s dwelling place.
The Oxford Illustrated Companion to the Bible agrees with the general meanings stated above: that some scholars connect the word ‘eden’ with a Sumerian meaning of “wilderness” or “plain,” while others have proposed a derivation from the Hebrew word for “delight” or “pleasure.” Therefore, we identify Eden as an ideal garden of delight, or paradise.
*****St. Jerome’s commentary takes perhaps the most logical stand about the location: it states simply that the Garden of Eden is the locale of God. They take the following reasons as evidence:
“The river going forth from Eden to water the garden and thence dividing into four rivers of the world, may be the ‘flow’ referenced in verse 6.
In some Ugaritic and Akk texts the high god dwells at the ‘source of the double deep,’ i.e., the source of all life-giving waters of the earth.
The totality of the world is symbolized by ‘four,’ as in the Akk phrase ‘the four quarters of the earth.’
St. Jerome’s commentary goes on to state flatly that the location of Pishon and Havilah in this text is unknown. Later in the Bible, Havilah is a descendant of Shem and Gihon is the name of a spring in Jerusalem. However, here the river Gihon flows through Cush in southern Mesopotamia (as deduced by the known positions of the Tigris and Euphrates).
The Zondervan All-in-One Bible Reference Guide also admits the truth: we simply do not have sufficient evidence to determine where the Garden of Eden was actually located.
The Archeological Study Bible puts forth possible meanings for the Gihon River and Pishon River, with the Gihon possibly being Hebrew for ‘to gush’ and the Pishon being understood as a form of the Semitic verb ‘to spring up.’ Even with these meanings, the ASB admits that the two rivers are difficult to identify.
*****Some scholars believe that the Gihon refers to the Nile, as Cush is sometimes associated with Nubia, south of Egypt. This is a belief with many complications as by naming the Gihon as the Nile, it makes the rest of the geography impossible, as the other rivers are in a completely different region.
*****Other scholars identify Cush as the land of Kassites, east of the Tigris, which was also known as Kush during ancient times. This theory has the benefit of placing three of the rivers noted (Gihon, Tigris, & Euphrates) in the same region. Supported by the verse that God placed the Garden “in the east,” presumably, to the east of Canaan/Israel, where most of the later events of the Bible took place.
*****A final theory is that Gihon and Pishon were simply parts of the Tigris or Euphrates Rivers, in the form of canals or tributaries. This is also supported by the verse that God placed the Garden “in the east,” presumably, to the east of Canaan/Israel, where most of the later events of the Bible took place
These theories, while separate from each other, can be incorporated into another set of theories, these based around the words in Verse 10: “A river rises in Eden to water the garden; beyond there it divides and becomes four branches.” These theories debate whether Eden was upriver of the four branches, encompassed the four rivers, or was downstream of the location of the four branches.
*****The first theory is that the four rivers shared a common source in Eden, placing Eden in northern Mesopotamia or Armenia. However, the fact that the Tigris and Euphrates lack a common source makes this theory suspect.
*****The second theory is that Eden is upriver of the four branches. This makes some sense with the current geography as the Tigris and Euphrates do indeed converge in southern Mesopotamia before they empty into the Persian Gulf. In this scenario Eden may still, as above, have been located in northern Mesopotamia or in the mountains in Armenia, from which the Tigris and Euphrates spring.
*****A third is theory is that Eden was in southern Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates converge. This would place Eden downriver of the four branches.
*****A fourth theory is that Eden refers to an extremely large area of land, and that the four rivers referred to did not actually “meet” at any point, and instead, that they simply flowed within the boundaries of Eden. In this theory, some believe that the Pishon and Gihon respresent the Indus and Nile, indicating that Eden includes the entire Fertile Crescent from India to Egypt.
Once we have dispensed with the many, many theories about where Eden was located, we must look beyond the literal words to the various meanings and interpretations included in these verses. Eden has at its center the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Thus, the garden is not simply an earthly garden, but a place created especially by God for humans. It is a model of the perfect relationship that existed between God and humans before the disobedience.
According to the Oxford Illustrated Companion to the Bible, later prophets had an altered meaning of the term. I’ll quote directly from that source: “The image of the garden of Eden reappears in somewhat altered form in the later prophets. The expulsion from Eden functions as a metaphor for the coming judgment against the nations (Tyre: Ezek. 28:11-19; Egypt: Ezek 31:8,9,16,18), and for the coming judgment of the day of the Lord (Joel 2:3). The garden of Eden is also an image of promise; in parallel with ‘the garden of the Lord,’ Eden appears in Isaiah 51:3 as a metaphor for the renewal of the land of Israel after the Babylonian exile (see also Ezek. 26:25, Rev. 22:2-3).”
I found a wonderful site that goes much more deeply into the matter of the location that I do. If you want more- or more complete- information, please visit: http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/biblical-garden-of-eden.html.
Brown, Raymond E. (S.S.), Fitzmyer, Joseph A. (S.J.), & Murphy, Roland E. (O. Carm). (1990) Genesis. “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.” Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Catholic Book Publishing. (various) Genesis: Chapter 2 Notes. “St. Joseph Edition, New American Bible.” New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing.
Geisler, Norman & Howe, Thomas. (1992). Genesis 2:8. “The Big Book of Bible Difficulties.” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. (2005). The Location of Eden. “New International Version: Archaeological Study Bible”. Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, MI.
Green, Kevin (compiler). (2008). Eden. “All-In-One Bible Reference Guide”. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Lockyear Sr., H. (Ed.) (1986) Eden. “Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible”. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Metzger, Bruce M. & Coogan, Michael D. (2003). Eden. “The Oxford Illustrated Companion to the Bible”. New York, NY: Tess Press.
Jennifer Becker Landsberger
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Biblical Evidence for Catholicism by Dave Armstrong