The early chapters of Genesis tell us how the world got to be the way it is. And woven into the accounts of God’s creative work are details that may strike us as odd. When the Spirit takes up 5 verses of this tight narrative to tell us about what happened to the river after it left the garden, it may be useful to ask: Why do we need to know this?
Of course, the obvious answer is, so we can know where the garden was. But seriously, I’ve seen several different analyses of this question based on the four rivers listed in Genesis 2, with basically three different conclusions. The garden was in:
The Tigris-Euphrates delta in lower Babylonia
The highlands of central Turkey where the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters are very close
There has been so much written on this subject, with so little truly satisfying evidence, that I think it’s not really a useful question at this point. By way of illustrating the difficulty, I’ll just observe that the Genesis account describes the river dividing into four courses downstream of the garden. This is the kind of thing that happens in a river delta: the Nile delta is famous for its “seven streams”, and the Tigris-Euphrates delta has similar features. But one of the four rivers, Hiddekel, is mentioned in relation to Assyria, which is far north of the delta. I think we have lost too much information over the centuries to understand this passage in a geographical sense. Nor do I believe the Scripture would have given so much space to this matter if it were simply about location.
Purpose of the river
So let’s look at this passage from a different angle. What is described in Genesis 2 is, first of all, a river to water the garden: let us understand clearly that the purpose of the river is to water the garden. It is the provision of God, given to ensure that everything in the garden would live and thrive under the man’s care. So, then, why do we need to know what happened to this river after it left the garden?
God who set up the garden also is the creator of the whole earth. He established the garden as a place for the man, who He created for dominion over the whole earth. The garden was not an end in itself: the careful description of the four rivers reminds us that the rest of God’s creation also needed water. By His provision there was one source of water for the garden; it was more than adequate for the garden itself, so what remained watered a great portion of the land outside the garden.
In this great excess of God’s provision were lessons for Adam as well as for us. First, God’s provision for Adam and for the garden far exceeded anything needed for the purpose: He is not stingy provider, nor inclined to short-change us in our needs. Second, His generosity is not limited to those who are in His special care: “… yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt 15:27). So the river, when it had done its job watering the garden, was given to the lands outside the garden, to bring life there as well. The presence of the garden was of benefit to the parts of the world nearby, since the overflow of God’s blessing fell on them. Third, Adam, looking out from the garden, would see a world not yet under his dominion, but fertile and promising: a world with dangers, a world untamed, but not lifeless or unrelentingly hostile. These same parts of the world were kept ready by God’s blessing for the dominion of man, the more easily to be incorporated into the garden since they were already watered and fertile.
Expanding that last thought a bit, consider Adam’s role in the garden. His assignment was “to tend and keep it.” This too was of God’s provision. And, as the man’s abilities grew, he too would find he could do more than what God had told him to do: he could extend his care to the well-watered lands outside the garden. He was not assigned to do this, not directly, but if he knew of the four rivers, he would certainly understand the lesson: God does more than He really has to do; and He means for us to be like Him. And He meant from the beginning that man’s dominion should extend over the whole of the earth. So the four rivers pointed in the direction man might follow, caring for a portion of the earth outside the garden.
One reason to think this is a good way to understand the passage is the mention of the treasures of Havilah. This appears to be a reference to the land later called Arabia. No one seems to know what bdellium is, but gold and onyx are used in the High Priest’s vestments. That is, items useful for the service of Yahweh. It is these that would come under the dominion of Adam were he to extend his care to the lands watered by the four rivers. That is, there are good things, things suitable for the service of God, outside the garden.
Adam was commanded to take care of the garden; and it would have been wrong for him to leave that task undone while seeking further dominion. But the divine commentary shows the potential advantage in expanding the garden when he should be able to do so. Again, there is nothing in Genesis 2 that directs Adam to do any such thing; but it does seem implicit in the record and in the overall purpose of God in making man.
The pattern we have seen is consistent with God’s later revelation. In the Bible we see many instances of God’s provision for His special people or special place overflowing to the benefit of the world outside.
The river as a symbol
To use the symbol, in the days of Moses the river of the garden flowed with deliverance when God led His people out of Egypt: It flowed also to a mixed multitude of people who came with them.
In the days of Joshua the son of Nun, the river of the garden flowed with promises fulfilled for God’s people: It flowed also to Rahab, who received her promise from the two spies, and to the Gibeonites, who won a promise by deceit.
The river of the garden flowed redemption in the days of Boaz, the son of Salmon; it did not stop at the borders of the holy people, but went out also to redeem Ruth.
In the days of our Lord, the river flowed with the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It flowed first with the preaching of one man, then with 12, then with 70. It flowed through Galilee, then Judea; and it was not unknown outside those territories. The Syro-Phoenician woman came to him, the Roman centurion came to him, and certain Greek pilgrims approached his disciples at the end. The river flowed more abundantly after his resurrection, when 3000 answered the call to salvation in one day. It dispersed abroad, bringing life to the world. It gushed forth in Samaria, broke through in the household of Cornelius, and overflowed all its banks in the preaching of Paul and Barnabas and Silas.
The effect of this surplus of God’s provision has been, time and again, not only to nourish and strengthen the garden, but to expand it by calling out of the nations people who would join themselves to the name of Yahweh. But there is more.
In the days of Jonah, the river of God flowed repentance and mercy for the people of Israel, but they did not respond. It flowed also to the men of Nineveh, who did respond and were spared. So the lands downstream can benefit from the provision of God even when the keepers of the garden do not. This happened again when the Jewish nation turned away the gospel of the kingdom: the river flowed on, and divided to all the gentiles as at this day. And it is certain that even where the gospel is poorly understood and the Father’s will not obeyed, even in those wild lands outside the garden, the river has brought fertility and prosperity.
But the Jews, to whom the gospel came first, sought to dam up the flow — and they have as a result been left desolate, a desert. The prophets are emphatic in declaring Israel will be restored, that all her streams will be filled once more with the blessings of her God. In the kingdom, in the day when the gospel of the kingdom is fulfilled, Israel will once more be the garden of God.
The last Adam
No longer will Adam tend that garden, but the last Adam — a life-giving spirit. The river will flow out from below his throne. Zechariah says half the water will flow westward to the Mediterranean Sea and half will flow eastward to the Dead Sea; Ezekiel says it will render the Dead Sea a living sea, where fishermen will take their catch. And as true as this may be in the literal sense, surely it foretells the spirit of the day when the prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled.
“Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The beast of the field will honor Me, The jackals and the ostriches, Because I give waters in the wilderness And rivers in the desert, To give drink to My people, My chosen. This people I have formed for Myself; They shall declare My praise” (Isa 43:18-21).
This is the time he foretells, when God will provide once more the waters of life for His people; and He will provide it in such abundance that the wild animals of the desert can share in it. And of course, following the figure, all the gentiles will enjoy the blessings of the Kingdom. The effect of this provision of God is declared very plainly by Ezekiel:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will also enable you to dwell in the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt. The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass by. So they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the Lord, have spoken it, and I will do it” (Ezek 36:33-36).
Remember the people I mentioned earlier: the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with Moses, Rahab and the Gibeonites, and Ruth. In all these instances, people who were not part of the holy nation responded to the blessings they found flowing out of Eden. They looked upstream, as it were, to find God the source, and joined themselves to Israel. Micah foretells a time when this will be widely practiced:
“Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Mic 4:1-2).
All this serves to cheer us as we look forward to the Lord’s coming. Until that day we continue under his care, sustained by the same gospel of the kingdom, by the same instruction in the ways of God that he taught so long ago, and by this remembrance in bread and wine. This is more than a meager sustenance: even today the river flows through this place with such depth and volume as to make this garden fertile and beautiful under the care of our Lord the gardener; and surely our God even today provides so much more than is needed here, to bless our neighbors and our communities around us. Let the gospel go forth liberally as we have been blessed; and let us pray for our neighbors that they also might recognize the blessings of that river and look upstream to find its source, our Father, and to become part of His garden.
Jim Seagoe (San Francisco Peninsula, CA)