The Rivers in Genesis

Hello, Brothers and Sisters! I hope and pray all of you are doing well physically, emotionally, and mentally. At this time, I think it’s more important than ever to dig into God’s Word. His Word is living and active, and the Holy Spirit ministers to us in the study of its content, so I’ve been digging in extra deep lately, and I have a question about the rivers in Genesis. It is clear that our God is a God of purpose. I don’t believe that He wastes words in the Scriptures, and I’ve always been interested in the description of the river flowing out of Eden in Genesis 2. In 2:10-14, the river is said to split into four rivers and water different areas of land, and the passage also describes different resources (gold, bdellium, onyx, etc) that are in those lands. My question is, why do you think this passage is there? What is God wanting us to understand with this? Taken strictly as geographical information, it seems pointless for it to be there. Taken symbolically or allegorically, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, either, and besides that, most of Genesis 2 is prose and not poetry, so I don’t think it’s meant to be taken allegorically. Any thoughts?


@psalm151ls I’ve always thought that they were 4 actual rivers, as indicated in the below NET Bible note. Another note pointed out that the Garden of Eden was a source of life and rivers would be associated with life in the ancient world. For me, Genesis 1 is a narrative, but it is a narrative from an ancient culture, so it was not trying to convey the type of scientific information we would necessarily be interested in.

The Hebrew active participle may be translated here as indicating past durative action, “was flowing,” or as a present durative, “flows.” Since this river was the source of the rivers mentioned in vv. [11-14](javascript:{}), which appear to describe a situation contemporary with the narrator, it is preferable to translate the participle in v. [10](javascript:{}) with the present tense. This suggests that Eden and its orchard still existed in the narrator’s time. According to ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was taken to the Garden of Eden, where his presence insulated the garden from the destructive waters of Noah’s flood. See Jub . 4:23-24.

Eden is portrayed here as a source of life-giving rivers (that is, perennial streams). This is no surprise because its orchard is where the tree of life is located. Eden is a source of life, but tragically its orchard is no longer accessible to humankind. The river flowing out of Eden is a tantalizing reminder of this. God continues to provide life-giving water to sustain physical existence on the earth, but immortality has been lost.


Thanks for responding, Sean. Yes, I do think it was four actual rivers. Just trying to figure out why this was important. The life-giving part is something I did think about. Do you think this might tie into temple theology somehow? Have you seen N.T. Wright’s ideas about how these beginning parts of Genesis tie in with temple theology?


@psalm151ls No, what does he say? I know in Ezekiel the water flowing from the temple represents God’s Spirit.


Here are the videos I watched. He does not bring up the specifics like the four rivers flowing from the one out of Eden, but I’m thinking temple theology might lend a hand to explaining why the passage is there.


@psalm151ls Thanks for sharing the videos :slight_smile: It is possible that the rivers, along with the precious stones and abundance of life in Eden, represent the life and abundance that pours forth from the place where God dwells, much like Israel was always bountiful when they were walking with the Lord and trusting wholly in Him. But I think it would be a both/and - the rivers were actual rivers, but the author chose to include those details because they emphasized the fullness of life that flows from God.

Is that sort of what you were thinking or were you following another line of thought?


Yes, I do think the rivers are actual rivers, but I do think God illustrates and communicates spiritual truths through the literal. I personally believe that God fully intended the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly to be both an illustration of His design and an illustration of the transformation we go through when we accept Christ into our lives.

So, yes, I guess what you’re saying is more along what I was thinking. Added to this, though, I was rereading the passage this morning, and the river flowing from out of Eden is described right after the mention that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are said to be in the garden. If this entire passage is meant to be literal and not allegorical or symbolic, then what is a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in a literal sense? What is a tree of life in a literal sense? I don’t think it’s coincidence that the river split into four, and I don’t think it was just for geographical reasons. The two trees seem to me to represent the law and grace, respectively. They are two separate trees yielding fruit with two different consequences and yet here they are in the same garden, seemingly the sanctuary in the “temple” of Creation. Isn’t this what Jesus and Paul talk about (Matthew 5:17, Galatians 3:21)? Out of the awareness of sin and the need for salvation the law brings, people are pointed to their Savior, Jesus, the tree of life and out of that flow living waters (John 7:38) (I’m just working on putting this together for the first time, so if it’s not perfect, please forgive and bear with me). Would it be, then, far-fetched to see the four very literal, very real rivers illustrating and reflecting the four gospels later given to us. We carry the good news of Jesus–his ministry in his life, death, and resurrection–over all the earth, and we have received that through the four gospels, each with their inspired, unique emphases. At first I thought I was digging too deeply, but I’m not sure I am, especially now that I’ve listened to N.T. Wright’s ideas having to do with temple theology.


@psalm151ls Interesting thoughts :slight_smile:

When I read what you wrote, it sounds like you are using Genesis 1-3 as a sermon illustration about the law vs grace. Not unlike what Paul does on occasion with OT texts in order to communicate a point to his Jewish audience.

Galatians 4:28-31 - Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

However, I would make a distinction between the exegetical meaning of a text and possible uses in sermon illustrations. For example, I would not say that God included Hagar / Sarah in the Genesis story so that Paul could use it as an illustration about the law and the Spirit. Rather, I would say that Paul used an illustration he knew his listeners would understand in order to relate to them.


Yes, I definitely think this is important. Things to think on. I agree that God wouldn’t include people in Genesis for a demonstration of the law and the Spirit, but I’m not sure I agree that He wouldn’t do that with the garden, the two trees, and the rivers. However, I think what is important is what you stated earlier–that the rivers point to the abundance of life that flows from God. I think it all speaks to the fact that we are now the temple with the law written upon our hearts by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. It is then and only then that the wells of our souls are unstopped and living waters flow out of us. Much better than being cisterns of stagnant water :slight_smile:. Anyways, now I’m just rambling. The beauty of how it all connects just enthralls me :slight_smile:


@psalm151ls and @SeanO This is a very interesting dialog. I hope that you do not mind if I turn it into a tri-log with the following thoughts:

  • Literary genre is important for interpreting the Bible. I am leery of inserting too much symbolic value to passages like this one because it feels very much like a traditional history. It does not have the poetic, catechistic feel of Genesis 1:1-2:3, which is difficult enough to interpret. I think that we may legitimately see this passage as a relatively precise description of Eden’s environs. We may, therefore, generally locate Eden on a map today because the Euphrates and Tigris rivers currently exist. I speak advisedly here; geological and sedimentary shifts have occurred over the eons since creation and undoubtedly have displaced the conjoining of the rivers.
  • This begs the question, “Why can we not find Eden?” I am sure that there are many possible physical answers to this question, as indicated above. I think that the angel that guards the entrance has a lot to do with it. God blinds eyes that he does not want to see. This happens all around the world in every age. If God thought that eating of the Tree of Life after the Fall was so dangerous, why would He not blind all humankind to its location until the coming of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2)? I am positive that Eden is right there. We just cannot see it because God prevents us from seeing it.

These are just a couple of my ramblings. I personally love this passage for its description of what I long to experience in Eternity. If it feeds this longing for Heaven, then it has accomplished its purpose, I think.


@psalm151ls The reality that we are now God’s temple and that His Spirit dwells in these jars of clay is indeed a profound truth! May the Lord help us to walk in the power and glory and beauty of all that He has done for us and in us :slight_smile:


And Yahweh God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And Yahweh God caused to grow from the ground every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food. And the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, ⌊along with⌋ the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And Yahweh God took the man and set him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it. And Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “From every tree of the garden ⌊you may freely eat⌋, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day ⌊that you eat⌋ from it ⌊you shall surely die⌋.”

The verse definitely flows without the rivers. :grinning:

From what I am read your question puts you in good company:

…it will suffice to indicate the fact that the tradition relating to such rivers was widely known in the ancient East. What is of importance to us at this stage is to determine the purpose of verses 10–14 in introducing the subject of the rivers, and to enquire whether they are integrally connected with the essential narrative or whether they are foreign to it, which is the view of most modern commentators, who tend to regard them as an interpolation, the work of a later author or a part of some ancient text that was inserted here by a later redactor.

Cassuto, U. (1998). A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I, From Adam to Noah (Genesis I–VI 8). (I. Abrahams, Trans.) (p. 114). Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University.

I would agree that If the rivers are away locating Eden then at best this would be to place Eden in a region certainly not GPS coordinates.

One way to think about this is to look at the word Eden. Let me quote from Umberto Cassuito’s commentary on Genesis 1-7 page 108 on his thoughts about what might be understood He says this:

The etymological meaning of the name Eden will, accordingly, be a place that is well watered throughout; and thus we read further on: that it was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord (13:10).

I am not a Hebrew or ancient language scholar or even a student but Cassuto is and from what I understand he has arrived at this definition by carefully comparing the use of the Hebrew word עָדַן ʿādhan with similar root words in Sumero-Akkadian, Arabic and Ugaritic as well as how these words where used in the ancient literature of those cultures. My best understanding. Also in the above quote, the reference to 13:10 is Gen 13:10. I think you will connect the two later on in this ramble.
I need to add to a few more points if this is going to make any sense.

  1. Land that was well irrigated would have been likely been more highly prized then aired land that depended on rain. Think Egypt and the Nile.
  2. I think that it would help to remember that the ANE (the would include the Hebrews) view of the cosmic geography included the idea of circuits, Ps 19:1-6, Ec 1:4-7, Pr 8:24-29. From John Walton’s book, ). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 166–167):
    “The sun moved through the sky during the day and then moved during the night into the netherworld, where it traversed under the earth to its place of rising for the next day. The stars
    were engraved on the sky and moved in tracks through their ordained stations.”
  3. Last, again from Walton:
    “Flowing all around this cosmos were the cosmic waters, which were held back by the sky, and on which the earth floated, though they conceived of the earth as supported on pillars. Precipitation originated from waters held back by the sky and fell to the earth through openings in the sky. Similar views of the structure of the cosmos were common throughout the ancient world and persisted in popular perception until the Copernican revolution and the Enlightenment. These were not mathematically deduced realities, but the reality of how things looked to them. The language of the Old Testament reflects this view, and no texts in the Bible seek to correct or refute it.”
  4. We need to understand the subject of ‘the water of the deep’ as it would have possibly been understood by the intended audience of that day. Here is a link to a video of Big Spring in Van Buren, Missouri. When you watch it think: “but a stream would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground” (Gen2:6) and “Now a river flowed out from Eden” (Gen 2:10b). And to the idea of ‘waters of the deep’ think in terms of ‘flow’. Joel 3;18, Ez 47:1-12, Ze 14:8, Ps 46:4 and He 5:4.
  5. Eden was pre-fall and I believe that it is safe to remember that the geography of Eden and the geography of the 21st century are different.

So, what about the 4 rivers? How do we make sense of them? The Tigris and Euphrates are still around but they converge they don’t diverge. What about the Pishon and Gihon? As far as we know they don’t exist any longer. So, back to Cassuto and his thoughts from the same book (he uses the Hebrew name for Tigris, Hiddekel):

“I shall draw attention only to this, that just as the Ḥiddekel and Euphrates constitute a pair of rivers that are close to each other and conjoin at the end of their course, so it seems probable that Pishon and Giḥon, which resemble each other even in the formation of their names, and are depicted in similar terms (it is the one which flows around, etc.), also form a pair of rivers that are in close proximity to each other and are interconnected. Bearing this in mind, and also that the names of the countries around which the rivers flow point to districts south of Egypt (see below), it appears that the most satisfactory explanation is the one that identifies them with two of the streams that jointly form the Nile (see on this especially the aforementioned article of Albright in AJSL, xxxix [1922–23], pp. 15–31).”

Yes it does sound ridiculous and Cassuto says as much:

“At the first blush it would seem that a strong objection can be raised against this identification, namely, that the sources of the Ḥiddekel and the Euphrates are situated in the north-east, whereas those of the Nile are in the south-west.”

Cassuto re-enforces this view with the idea of appealing to the 5 points listed above. A place that is well watered throughout, the idea of circuits, waters of the deep and water that flows and a pre-fallen Eden, posits this:

“To overcome this difficulty the theory has been advanced that possibly the text had in mind a confluence of the two pairs of rivers beneath the ground or as the result of a circuit round the earth…”

Problem solved! :blush:

To be fair he does go on to address the Messianic hope that in that ‘Great day’

‘the Divine river, which is destined to become a source of blessing in the Messianic era, may refer to the renewal of the bliss of the garden of Eden by means of the stream that will flow from the site of the Temple.’


Thanks so much for your response, @Jimmy_Sellers! It has a lot of information, and before I respond, I need time to comb through it all and think. It’s some great information and should definitely be given good consideration.

@blbossard, good thoughts! I hear you on taking genre into consideration. I think it is important to point out that it’s important to understand genre as it was in that ancient culture and not our own. Although we were taught this in my Bible classes at school, I really did not fully grasp onto that until a recent privilege I had of hearing an expert speak. So, the issue is that the whole of Torah is law. “Torah” actually means law. Learned that in school in my Bible classes as well, but never really kept that in mind as I read stories and geographical things within the text in the second chapter of Genesis. I think, with keeping that in mind, we need to notice that while this might be quite a literal geographical description (which I have always taken it as and still do, as I’ve emphasized already), we have to come to terms with the fact that the two trees, which are in the immediate context of the mention of the rivers and are to be connected with them, are not so easily put into a very literal sense. I do think that they were two physical entities, but I’m not sure that we know what those are in a literal sense and that they were communicated as trees for our understanding. Another detail that supports that conclusion is that, if I am remembering correctly, the word for the fruit does not name any fruit we know of today. Again, I could be wrong, but that is what I am remembering. So, in light of that, I think there is great validity in questioning whether God set this literal geographical location up in such a way as to teach His precepts (law). I am still working this out in my head. I am trying to be as clear as possible, so if I am not making sense anywhere, please ask me questions! I started thinking that somehow the running, life-giving rivers coming from the one river that waters the garden, are not so much representative of the gospels specifically (and I would certainly never teach that—but I think there is room and grace to question), but are representative of the life that flows from God’s grace (the tree of life) and God’s holiness (what is reflected and represented by the law???). We are made holy, set apart, by grace through faith, which is why the eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden and would end in death.

Also, temple language regarding creation is a frequent happening in the text of the OT (again, if I am remembering correctly), rendering Eden to be very much like a sanctuary. Intersecting temple theology with the idea that God’s law and precepts were laid out throughout Torah via narrative, poetry, all the different literary genres-- and focusing that crosshairs on this text is going to prove valuable in understanding more about why it’s there, I think. I think that this is not outside the bounds of orthodoxy or is heretical so that it should be looked at with suspicion. I definitely think it’s worth consideration. I already had learned about the Torah being law in school, and I haven’t read it yet, but having heard his ideas, Michael LeFebvre has a book out explaining the communication of the law in the Torah and how to better categorize some of the texts genre-wise: The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context. He doesn’t speak specifically to what we are discussing here, but I think we could apply some of the concepts in the way he describes law as being communicated so that interpreting a text super literally just because it has poetic language may not always be the best approach. Could be off base, but these are my thoughts so far…still working it out.


Cassuto (FYI, he is recommended by NT Wright) said this about creation in his introduction to the story of creation.He contrasts all the ancient stories of creation and there were many with this poetic rebuke:

Then came the Torah and soared aloft, as on eagles’ wings, above all these notions. Not many gods but One God; not theogony, for a god has no family tree; not wars nor strife nor the clash of wills, but only One Will, which rules over everything, without the slightest let or hindrance; not a deity associated with nature and identified with it wholly or in part, but a God who stands absolutely above nature, and outside of it, and nature and all its constituent elements, even the sun and all the other entities, be they never so exalted, are only His creatures, made according to His will.

Cassuto, U. (1998). A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I, From Adam to Noah (Genesis I–VI 8). (I. Abrahams, Trans.) (p. 8). Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University.

I thought this appropriate based on your comments.

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@psalm151ls Great post! Do not fret; it is at least as clear as the passage that we are discussing! :wink: I think that we fundamentally agree. I do not think that examining all avenues of interpretation is out of bounds for orthodoxy. I simply prefer not to read to much into passages where there is not a clear license to do so. But by all means, examine away! The Waters are very deep! :slight_smile:

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Thank you, @blbossard, because I was thinking over that (which I probably should have mentioned in my post), and I din’t think so, either…but there’s always the chance I could be wrong :slight_smile:

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