Scientific Search for the Garden of Eden

Scientific Search for the Garden of Eden January 18, 2022

The Remarkable Geological and Geographical Accuracy of Genesis 2

Carol A. Hill is a Presbyterian geologist, whose work on Noah’s Flood has been very useful in my research on that topic. She has also addressed the question of whether Eden, as described in the Bible, was an actual place that can be located through an analysis of the story in Genesis and its connection to geography and geology. She ponders the topic in her article, “The Garden of Eden: A Modern Landscape” (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 [March 2000]: 31-46). All indented citations will be hers, unless otherwise identified.

Genesis 2:10-14 (RSV) A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. [11] The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; [12] and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. [13] The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Cush. [14] And the name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Her study of this fascinating topic upholds the notion that the Bible is trustworthy and accurate, as far as it can be tested by secular fields of knowledge: even as early as Genesis 2. Adam and Eve were real people: referred to as such in the New Testament. And the fall and original sin are real, even though the Bible clearly also used symbolic language (the trees and the forbidden fruit) to represent these acts that happened in history. Hill states in summary, before providing various scientific reasons for her views:

[T]he Garden of Eden was a historical place. One reason for this belief is because the Bible gives its geographic location: two of the names of the four rivers mentioned in Gen. 2:10-14 have been preserved from biblical times. According to the Bible, the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in southern Iraq where the Euphrates and Hiddekel (Tigris) Rivers flowed into the head of the Persian Gulf–that is, they flowed on a modern landscape that is still recognizable today. . . .

1.All four rivers were historical rivers, not mythical rivers made up in the mind of the Genesis writer.

2.All four rivers flowed into the Persian Gulf in the land of Mesopotamia. They were not rivers that flowed in other parts of the world as has been suggested by various authors.

3.All four rivers (or now-dry riverbeds) of Genesis are still there; that is, the Genesis writer identified a modern landscape, one which is almost identical to that which still exists in the Iraq-Arabia- Iran area today.

Havilah

The Bible mentions two Havilahs in the Table of Nations: Havilah the son of Cush (Gen. 10:7) and Havilah the son of Joktan (Gen. 10:29). The “land of Havilah” has been interpreted by many biblical scholars to be Arabia, and Joktan is considered to be the head of the tribes of Arabia, as most of his sons can be traced to places and districts within what is now Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Apparently the “land of Havilah” referred to a whole region rather than one particular place, since there appears to have been more than one tribe by that name.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Havilah”) states:

The mention of a Cushite Havilah is explained by the fact that the Arabian tribes at an early time migrated to the coast of Africa. The context of Genesis 10:7 thus favors situation on the Ethiopian shore . . . But its occurrence among the Yoktanite Arabs (Genesis 10:29 ) suggests a location in Arabia. South Arabian inscriptions mention a district of Khaulan (Ḥaulan ), and a place of this name is found both in Tihāma and Southeast of San‛ā ). Again Strabo’s Chaulotaioi and Ḥuwaila in Bahrein point to a district on the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf. No exact identification has yet been made.

Pishon River

There is no river flowing from the western mountains of Saudi Arabia down to the head of the Persian Gulf. . . . but there is evidence that such a river did flow there sometime in the past. . . . Even as late as 3500 B.C. (before Christ), ancient lakes are known to have existed in the “Empty Quarter” of Saudi Arabia, which is today the largest sand desert in the world . . . It was . . . at about 2000 B.C., that the climate turned hyper-arid and the rivers of Arabia dried up.

In his article, “The River Runs Dry” [Biblical Archaeology Review 22:4 (1996): 52-57, 64], James Sauer describes how satellite images have detected an underground riverbed along the Wadi al Batin (wadi means the same thing as arroyo, a dry riverbed). Sauer identified this river as the Pishon River of the Bible, a river which flowed at a time when the climate was wetter than it is today.

The Wadi al Batin/Wadi Rimah system drains some 43,400 square miles of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The now dry Wadi al Batin enters the Persian Gulf at Umm Qasr in Kuwait (Fig. 1), but in the past the Pishon entered the Gulf north of Umm Qasr, in the Euphrates-Tigris river basin. The evidence for this is a triangular, fan-shaped, delta plain of cobbles and pebbles in the Dibdibah area, which has its apex near Al Qaysumah and which extends northward toward the Euphrates. The cobbles and pebbles of this gravel plain are composed of crystalline rock that is characteristic of the western mountains of Saudi Arabia, and they decrease in size as they approach the Gulf area. The geological implication of this is that the source of the cobbles was to the southwest in Saudi Arabia, and that enough water once flowed in the Pishon River to transport rock debris from the Western highlands down toward the Euphrates-Tigris river basin.

From the Persian Gulf at Umm Qasr, the now dry Wadi al Batin can be followed to the southwest, upstream past the borders of Kuwait, and into Saudi Arabia, where it is incised into a Tertiary limestone- sandstone sedimentary rock terrain. Then, just past Al Hatifah, the dry riverbed is engulfed by immense sand dunes and disappears.

This is where the satellite photos come in. These photos indicate that the Wadi al Batin continues to the southwest, beneath the sand, and emerges as the Wadi Rimah (that is, both wadis were part of the same river system in the past, before being covered by sand dunes). About eighty miles further in the upstream direction, the Wadi Rimah bifurcates into the Wadi Qahd on the northwest, and the Wadi al Jarir on the southwest (Fig. 1). The Wadi al Jarir continues up gradient to the area of the Mahd adh Dhahab gold mine exactly as the Bible says: “The River Pishon encompasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold” (Gen. 2:11). Sauer remarked in his article: “This implies extraordinary memory on the part of the biblical authors, since the river dried up between about 3500 and 2000 B.C.”

The evangelical Protestant flagship magazine, Christianity Today took note of this theory in its article, “Do Photos Evidence Lost Edenic River?” (Gordon Govier, 10-7-96):

Former NASA scientist Farouk El-Baz was assessing environmental damage to the Kuwaiti desert after the Persian Gulf War when he first noticed smooth pebbles of basalt and granite that looked out of place amid the local limestone.

“We can find these rocks in abundance only in the western part of the Arabian peninsula,” he said, “right on the east side of the Red Sea.” El-Baz is now director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing. His satellite photo analysis revealed a dry channel connecting the western mountains with Kuwait, partially covered by sand dunes. . . .

The Hijaz Mountains, from which spring this “Arabian River,” do produce gold, and the river passes a city called Hadiyah. The discovery makes it much harder for skeptics “to ignore the possibility that the biblical texts accurately preserve many earlier traditions,” archaeologist James Sauer wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review.

El-Baz says the climate in the Arabian desert and other nearby areas was much wetter about 5,000 years ago. He believes some of the river’s flow may still be in an underground aquifer and available for irrigation.

Gold

Mahd adh Dhahab (literally meaning “cradle of gold”) was the largest and one of the richest gold mines of the ancient world. It is believed to be the fabled “Ophir” of the Bible, the source of King Solomon’s gold. (Ophir was another one of Joktan’s sons; Gen. 10:29.) The gold of Ophir is referred to in the following passages: 1 Kings 9:28, 10:11, 22:48; 1 Chron. 29:4; 2 Chron. 8:18, 9:10; Job 22:24; Ps. 45:9; and Isa. 13:12. Based on the number of ancient mine tailings (refuse left over after the ore is treated), geologists have estimated that the Mahd adh Dhahab mine produced more than 950,000 ounces (about 30 metric tons) of gold in antiquity. Also, based on radiocarbon ages, they believe it was mined during the reign of King Solomon (961-922 B.C.) . . . It has also been mined in modern times. . . .

Gold suddenly appears in the archaeological record of Mesopotamia in the Uruk Period (about 3500 B.C.). . . . A small variety of gold artifacts have been recovered in southern Iraq that date to about 3500 B.C.; for example, in Uruk those found in the layers underlying the White Temple. . . .

Where did these ancient Mesopotamian peoples get all of the gold and silver that they used for their jewelry and temples? They must have had established trade relations with places where these metals were being mined, since Mesopotamia itself is devoid of metal deposits. The nearest gold-silver mine to Ur and Uruk is Mahd adh Dhahab.

Onyx and Bdellium

Dr. Hill speculates in a fascinating way for many paragraphs about the “onyx stone” (Gen 2:12) but comes to no firm conclusions. Still, there is no compelling reason to believe that the Bible is inaccurate regarding this reference (in whatever it actually refers to in this case). She details several plausible possibilities.  In the case of bdellium (also 2:12), however, it is much more clear cut:

Bdellium species known from Arabia are Commiphora mukul and Commiphora schimperi.

All of these kinds of gum-resins (frankincense, myrrh, and bdellium) were used in the ancient Middle East for religious (incense), cosmetic (perfume), and medicinal purposes. . . .

The trees from which myrrh and bdellium are extracted grew during ancient times only in southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. Specifically for southern Arabia, myrrh (bdellium) grew within the modern-day country of Yemen from about 18ƒ latitude southward to the Gulf of Aden, although the Arab geographer al-Maqdisi referred to a bdellium called muql which grew in the area of al-Marwah, somewhat north of Yemen.

Thus, the Bible (no surprise!) is accurate again, in Genesis 2. Bdellium only grew in ancient times in the place associated with it in the Bible (Havilah, in Arabia), and one other place not far away (Somalia: only about 150 miles across the Gulf of Aden). Even if it were found in many other places, the Bible is still correct in associating it with Arabia. It simply stated that it was “there” (in Havilah). Things like this, having to do with scientifically or historically / archaeologically verifiable data, multiplied scores and scores of times, tend to give one familiar with them a strong sense that the Bible is historically trustworthy.

Gihon River / Cush

The second river of Genesis 2 (the Gihon) is not as easily identified as the Pishon. The problem revolves around the identity of the “land of Cush,” which in the King James Version of the Bible was translated “Ethiopia.” Not only is this translation questionable, it also does not make sense. A river in Ethiopia would flow to the Red Sea, to the Mediterranean Sea, or to the Indian Ocean, not to a confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers as stated by the Bible. According to Speiser in the Anchor Bible Commentary, the “land of Cush has been mistakenly identified with Ethiopia, rather than with the land of the Kassites.” The Kassites (or kaööû) people lived to the east of Mesopotamia in the Old Babylonian Period (1800-1600 B.C.; Table 1). Before then, however, this area was known as the land of Elam or Susiana, where the inhabitants of the Plain of Susa lived (Fig. 2). If the Cush intended by the Hebrew word kush is the territory of the Kassites, as Speiser claims [cf. Gen 10:8: “Cush became the father of Nimrod”], then the river referred to in Gen. 10:13 must have come from the east of Mesopotamia, or what today is western Iran.

The Wikipedia article on “Kassites” provides interesting data about a possible ancient confusion of Ethiopia and Elam / Susiana / western Iran:

Herodotus was almost certainly referring to Kassites when he described “Ethiopians [from] above Egypt” in the Persian army that invaded Greece in 492 BC. Herodotus was presumably repeating an account that had used the name “Kush” (Cush), or something similar, to describe the Kassites, but “Kush” was coincidentally also a name for Ethiopia. A similar confusion of Kassites with Ethiopians is evident in various ancient Greek accounts of the Trojan war hero Memnon, who was sometimes described as a “Kissian” and founder of Susa, and other times as Ethiopian. According to Herodotus, the “Asiatic Ethiopians” lived not in Kissia, but to the north, bordering on the “Paricanians” who in turn bordered on the Medes.

The notes for the New American Bible [Gen 2:10-14] state: “The land of Cush here and in 10,8 is not Ethiopia (Nubia) as elsewhere, but the region of the Kassites, east of Mesopotamia.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Gihon [1]”) holds that Cush was “probably a province East of the Tigris”. Associate Professor of Old Testament Kevin Burrell, an expert on the Cushites, authored the book, Cushites in the Hebrew Bible (Brill: 2020). He wrote on page 134:

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this chapter to the identification of Cush in the primeval history relates to the geographic location of Cush. Whereas outside the book of Genesis Cush comes to be identified almost exclusively with Nubia, it will be demonstrated here that for the Genesis author, Cush as a reference to a geographical region denotes not African Cush, but rather a primordial land far to the east.

On page 150, however, Dr. Burrell proclaims that he “fundamentally” departs from the view of “identifying the Genesis primeval Cush with the Kassites . . .” He equates it with ancient Meluhha:

. . . in old Babylonian sources, also known as the “eastern” Ethiopia in classical sources, which this study maintains holds the key to understanding the Cush of the Genesis primordial account. (p. 151)

He in turn defines Meluhha in present-day terms, as:

Iran, Pakistan (especially along the Baluchistan), the Persian Gulf and the Indus civilization as the most probable geography of the “black land” of Meluhha. (p. 162)

Wikipedia (“Meluhha”) flatly states: “Most scholars suggest that Meluhha was the Sumerian name for the Indus Valley Civilization.” The latter was described on its Wikipedia page as:

[A] Bronze Age civilisation in the northwestern regions of South Asia, lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, and in its mature form from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. Together with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early civilisations of the Near East and South Asia, and of the three, the most widespread, its sites spanning an area stretching from today’s northeast Afghanistan, through much of Pakistan, and into western and northwestern India.

The McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia (“Cush”) provides more valuable insight about the confusing use of “Ethiopia”:

[E]ven though the name of Gush were more variously applied in Scripture than it really is, it would not be more so than was the corresponding term Ethiopia among the Greeks and Romans, which comprised a great many nations far distant, as well as wholly distinct from each other, and having nothing in common but their swarthy, sun-burnt complexion — Αἰθίοψ q. d. αἰθὸς τὴν ὄψιν, i.e. “burnt-black in the face.” Homer (Odyss. 1:22) speaks of them as “‘a divided race — the last of men — some of them at the extreme west, and others at the extreme east.” Strabo (i. 60) describes them as a “two-fold people, lying extended in a long tract from the rising to the setting sun.” Herodotus (vii. 69, 70) distinguishes the eastern Ethiopians in Asia from the western Ethiopians in Africa by the straight hair of the former and the curly hair of the latter. The ancients, in short, with the usual looseness of their geographical definitions, understood by Ethiopia the extreme south in all the earth’s longitude, and which, lying, as they thought, close upon the fiery zone, exposed the inhabitants to the sun’s scorching rays, which burned them black. It is the mistaken idea of the scriptural term “Cush” being used in the same vague and indeterminate manner that has led to so much confusion on this subject . . .

Dr. Hill continues:

The major rivers that run through western Iran (formerly Susiana) are the Karkheh and the Karun (Fig. 2). The Karun is by far the longer of the two, and Iran’s only navigable river. These two rivers provided a route of communication between the heart of Susiana and southernmost Mesopotamia. In the third millennium B.C., caravan routes along both rivers went through Susiana to Sumer and Akkad.

This important trade route would be familiar to people in the region. Perhaps this is why the writer of Genesis mentioned the Gihon River. Also, the Sumerians were constantly at war with the Elamites, and this is another reason why the Genesis writer would have been apt to mention this river. Everyone living then would have known where the “land of Cush” was located.

Following this reasoning, the most likely candidate for the biblical Gihon River is the Karun. The word “compasseth” in Hebrew means “to revolve, surround, or border, or to pursue a roundabout course, to twist and turn.” That is exactly what the Karun River does [see a map of it]. It is a meandering river with great bends. Its course is 510 miles long, but its distance (in a bird’s-eye view) is only 175 miles long.

Our bottom-line task with regard to the Gihon River is to first identify it and then to better understand why Genesis describes it as flowing “around the whole land of Cush” (2:13). We have to find a river that flows to the area of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Karun River seems to fit that bill, but is confined to present-day Iran (see a map that shows the four rivers in Hill’s proposal clearly). There are still mysteries and disagreements in this area of inquiry (to be expected), but I think we are generally on the right track.

Where Was Eden?

Of all of these ancient mounds, Eridu is archaeologically one of the oldest settlements known in southern Mesopotamia, dating to about 4800 B.C. According to ancient Mesopotamian tradition, Eridu ranks as the oldest city in the world, and it was also regarded as a sacred city.  . . . The mound of Eridu is located about twelve miles southwest of Ur. . . .

[T]he Bible locates the Garden of Eden at the confluence of the four rivers of ancient Mesopotamia. The Bible correctly identifies the Pishon River as draining the land of Havilah (Arabia), from whence came gold, bdellium, and onyx stone. The Bible also correctly identifies the Euphrates and Tigris, both of which are modern rivers which drain approximately the same area of Mesopotamia as they did in ancient times. The Gihon, while not positively identified, is probably the Karun (and/or Karkheh), which “encompasses” (winds around) the whole land of Cush (western Iran). Thus, the Bible locates the Garden of Eden as somewhere near where the head of the Persian Gulf may have existed some 6000 years ago– that is, on a modern landscape similar to that which exists in southern Iraq today.

I’m not persuaded by Dr. Hill’s selection of Eridu as Eden because, in my opinion, it doesn’t appear to line up with the biblical description: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (Gen 2:10). A location southeast of it makes much more sense to me, in terms of the confluence of the four rivers, according to a map that shows all four proposed rivers (the four that Dr. Hill agrees with).

The Persian Gulf expanded and receded in size and depth several times throughout history (as one geological article indicates). It may possibly be that the Garden of Eden was in a location now under the waters of the northern Persian Gulf, or not far north of the present shore. In any event, the landscape and environment (probably of any location one selects) have vastly changed (as have many regions: particularly in the Near East).

I’m actually not as much interested in pinpointing Eden as I am in showing that the biblical indicators of location are of a sort that can be scientifically analyzed. That’s the exciting and fascinating aspect of all this. These place names and descriptions of things associated with them: like gold and onyx, are not mere myth. We get the general idea of location from two known named rivers (that no one disputes): the Tigris and Euphrates, and the other two candidates presented above have plausible cases to be made for them.

The Garden of Eden was, therefore (for those who regard the Bible as historically trustworthy and/or inspired by God), clearly in that general region; but I personally find Eridu to be an unsatisfactory and unconvincing choice.

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Photo credit: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden / Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise, by Johann Wenzel Peter (1745-1829) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: I examine a fascinating article by geologist Carol Hill, dealing with the location of the Garden of Eden, as indicated in several verifiable ways by the text of Genesis.

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