Where did mankind originate? The Bible tells us of the creation of Adam and Eve and their primeval home in the Garden of Eden, but where was it? This is of more than academic interest because modern agnostics are effectively using this subject to undermine the Bible. It is the common teaching to our young people in the public schools that the Bible is a book of myths and that there was no Garden of Eden and no creation of Adam 6,000 years ago.
Genesis 2:7-15 tells us, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed… And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates. And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” (King James Version)
There were four rivers encompassing Eden, and two are still known today: the Euphrates and the Hiddekel, which is the Hebrew name for the Tigris River. These are in Mesopotamia, the area to the east of the land of Canaan or Palestine. The other two rivers, the Pison and the Gihon have long been a great source of speculation. Going back to the earliest English Bibles, John Wickliffe’s translation of 1394 stated that the “Gyon [en]compasseth al the land of Ethiopie,” in Africa. So also did the Bishops Bible of 1568. The word “Ethiope” or “Ethiopia” is a translation of the Hebrew “Cush,” meaning “hot” or “black.” The land of Cush is usually thought of as the area of Ethiopia or even all of Africa, but Cush was also identified with southern Mesopotamia and parts of southern Arabia. The reference to black therefore does not relate to either the soil color or the race of the people, but to the hot sun that turns complexions dark with what we call a sun-tan. See for example Song of Solomon 1:6, “Don’t stare at me because I’m dark; it’s the sun that tanned me. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me look after the vineyards.” (Complete Jewish Version) Of course, sun-tans are not equivalent to race, nor are they transmissible to descendants.
Coverdale’s English translation of 1535 instead says “The second water is called Gihon, which runneth aboute the whole londe of ye Morias.” Mount Moriah was the location of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, while an area of southern Arabia was also known as Moriah. William Tyndale’s translation of 1534 had yet another interpretation, stating, “The name of the seconde ryver is Gihon which compassyth all the lande of Inde.” Did he in fact mean to refer to the land of India? Some commentaries think so, while others tell us that in ancient times the headwaters of the Nile River in Egypt were known as the “Indus.”
Interestingly, in support of this, Lange’s Commentary states that the garden area was limited to a specific portion of Eden.
Modern Biblical commentaries are just as divided as the translators on the location of the rivers of Eden. Joseph Sutcliffe states, “The name of the first river is Pison. Josephus, who is followed by St. Jerome, calls this the Gangès [located in India and Bangladesh] the greatest river of Asia. This river forms the boundary of the ancient land of Havilah, son of Cush. (Gen. 10:7). Its most valued productions in the time of Moses were gold and precious stones. Geology confirms this account, that in various parts of Asia there are extensive veins of yellow earth, abounding with grains of gold. The bdellium is the lachrymæ pellucidæ, or waterdrop of Pliny, and of Haüy, a celebrated naturalist of France. The onyx-stone is a gem of the chalcedony class, of a dark colour, with beautiful variegations. The second river is Gihon, the Nile, whose sources are in Ethiopia, and whose western branch drains the centre of Africa.” (Gen. 2:11-13)
Johann Peter Lange’s (Lutheran) Commentary states, “By the name Pishon has been understood 1. the Phasis, 2. the Phasis-Araxes of Xenophon, 3. the Bisynga or Fradatti (Buttmann), 4. the Indus (Schulthess), 5. the Ganges (Josephus, Eusebius, Bertheau), 6. the Hyphasis (Haneberg), 7. the Nile (the Midrash), 8. the Goschah (C. Ritter).” So here we have eight choices representing eight disagreements by scholars!
John Trapp’s Commentary says, “[The name of the second river is Gihon.] This is the same, say some, which the Egyptians call Nile. Others make it to be a channel of the river Euphrates, called by those that dwell near it Naharsares. The hill where Solomon was anointed king was also called Gihon.” Here is another example of modern scholarship; we are told that the second river may be the Nile because some people think so!
Peake’s Commentary summarizes the evidence given by the author of Genesis chapter 2 with the remark that, “no one has combined his statements into a consistent scheme. Havilah is unknown, but perhaps in Arabia. Cush is generally supposed to be Ethiopia. In that case Gihon is probably the Nile, though it may be the Indus, which was supposed to be the upper part of the Nile, in which case Pishon might be the Ganges.”
The wide-ranging remarks of the Bible commentaries might indeed suggest that all parts of the world were included in Eden. Whedon’s Commentary tells us that the wide variety of suggestions for the rivers of Eden is “the best possible refutation of the notion that the rivers of Eden are identical with any rivers now known.” That is certainly taking our lack of complete understanding too far, since two of the rivers are known with certainty: the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flowing south through Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf. Some scholars believe that the other two rivers named in Genesis 2, the Pison and the Gihon, no longer exist today but originally also framed the Garden of Eden in southern Mesopotamia. Is the Scripture account implying that the four rivers formed a complete barrier around the Garden? That the Garden may have been fenced or enclosed in some way is indicated by the fact that it had an entrance. Genesis 3:24 tells us “God forced the man to leave the garden. Then he put Cherub angels and a sword of fire at the entrance to the garden to protect it.” (English Majority Version)
Interestingly, in support of this, Lange’s Commentary states that the garden area was limited to a specific portion of Eden. That makes sense; otherwise, following many of the commentaries, Eden itself would have been an enormous open area and possibly have included much of the world of that time. In that case, Adam and Eve could only obey the command to leave (Gen. 3:23-24) by a hike of many long years, if ever! Lange states, “By the garden…is to be understood ‘a garden of trees’. This much is clear, that the garden of the paradisaical nature was distinguished for its trees. The garden lay in the eastern district of the Eden region… The Eastern land is the home-land of humanity.”
Biblical scholar Friedrich Delitzsch saw a three-part temple symbolism composed of Eden, the Garden within Eden, and the world at large: “The garden is the most holy (or the holy of holies), Eden is the holy place, whilst the whole earth around is its porch and court.”
We can relate the Biblical account to at least some of the modern theories of the secular scholars. If, as many believe, the continents were divided due to the drift of continental plates (cf. Gen. 10:25), then the world of Adam may have still been one large super continent to which the geologists have given the name “Pangea.” In that case, Eden may have been a vast area (perhaps even equivalent to Pangea?), but the Garden of Eden was a specific place within the land of Eden. That specific place according to Scripture was located in the Mideast in Mesopotamia, specifically the warm southern Tigris-Euphrates valley region that is still a fertile land today.