It is common knowledge that the Garden of Eden is the name of the idyllic place prepared for Adam and where happiness is in store for the righteous (according to later writings). A careful reading of the verse suggests otherwise. "A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden. From there it divided and became four major rivers."[1] The rabbis confirm this view, claiming that the Garden and Eden are in fact distinct; the source of the river (Eden) appears to be outside the garden, which it irrigates as it passes through.[2]

The river that issues from Eden is described further in Genesis: "…it then divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land is Havilah, where the gold is. (The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli). The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Hiddekel, the one that flows east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Perat."[3]

Here, as in Genesis 13:10, the garden is made independent of the vagaries of seasonal rainfall. Somewhere beyond the confines of the garden the single river separates into four branches that probably represent the four quarters of the inhabited world. In other word, the river of Eden also nourishes the rest of the world with its life-giving waters. While the Tigris and the Euphrates are of course well known, the other two names defy positive identification. They may stand for another great river civilization corresponding to that of the Mesopotamian plain, perhaps the Nile Valley.

R. Judah said in the name of Rav:

All rivers are lower in altitude than the three [Pishon, Gihon, and Hiddekel (Tigris)], and these three are lower in altitude than the Perat (Euphrates).

(BT Ber 59b)


Pishon, the meandering river associated with "the land of Havilah," is an unknown name. If this latter name is Hebrew, it means "sandy land." There are two biblical sites identified by the name Havilah, one within the Egyptian sphere of influence, the other in Arabia. Here the place is described as a source of gold and precious materials.

Rashi thought the Pishon was the Nile (even though the Euphrates and Tigris flow in a southeasterly direction and the Nile to the north). According to Josephus, it was the Ganges or the Indus. Rabbi Aaron Marcus offered an alternative in the Karun, which flows through Iran into the Persian Gulf.[4] In support of Josephus, there is a city called Havelian on the upper Indus River, in Pakistan.

Gihon is the name of a spring in a valley outside of Jerusalem, ancient Jerusalem's main water source.[5] The stem g-y-h means "to gush forth." The verse describes Gihon as "the one that winds through the whole land of Cush," yet no river of this name is otherwise known. The association with "the land of Cush" complicates the identification, because elsewhere in Genesis, Cush is a "brother"of Egypt and is also connected with South Arabia and with Mesopotamia.[6] Although there are other biblical associations, Cush generally refers in the Bible to Nubia, a region south of Egypt corresponding roughly to the present-day Nilotic Sudan. If this is the case here too, then Pishon and Gihon may be the terms for the Blue Nile and the White Nile. These two rivers unite at Khartoum to form the mightiest river of Africa, which finally empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

"Southward through Eden went a river large, Nor chang'd his course, but through the shaggy hill..."

(From John Milton's Paradise Lost: Book IV)
Read passage by Milton

Josephus identifies Gihon with the Nile. According to Rabbi Aaron Marcus, some people identify it with the Amu-dar'ya, which now flows from Afghanistan into the Aral Sea in Russia, and once flowed into the Caspian Sea.[7] He says that it also might be the Qezal Owzan River, which flows northward through Iran into the Caspian Sea, or the Khabur, a tributary of the Euphrates flowing through Syria.

Hiddekel "that flows east of Asshur" is generally identified as the Tigris River. The Hebrew word Hiddekel is mentioned again only in Daniel 10:4. The Tigris/Hiddekel river is known as the Idiklat/Diklat in Assyrian, and as the Tigra in Old Persian.

Perat, the fourth and last river, is generally associated with the Euphrates. The Hebrew name Perat finds its equivalent in the Assyrian Purattu and the Old Persian Ufratu.[8]


[1] Genesis 2:10 The river is mentioned only in the second version of creation [back]
[2] BT Berakhot 34b [back]
[3] Genesis 2:10-14 [back]
[4] Keset HaSofer 121a [back]
[5] King Hezekiah (715-687 BCE) recognized that without a secure water source, Jerusalem could not withstand a long siege and had a 600 yard tunnel dug to divert the waters of the Gihon Spring into the city. (II Kings, 20:20) He also sealed the cave from which the waters of the Gihon sprung forth. His belief that it would be difficult for an army to mount a successful siege on Jerusalem without water would appear to be substantiated when Sennacherib marched southward and attempted to conquer Jerusalem in the year 701 BCE. He failed, even though the other cities of Judah had succumbed. (II Chronicles 32:30) [back]
[6] Genesis 10:6-10 [back]
[7] Keseth HaSofer 61a, 62a [back]
[8] Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [back]

sources Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991)



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend