Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Garden of Eden: Was it a real place?

In this essay, I discuss the Biblical Garden of Eden in the wider context of the ancient Middle East. The Bible is not the only text where this motif is found; it appears elsewhere in the ancient Semitic literature. I ask: Was it a historical place? This is the third part of the series on the Book of Genesis.

The Garden of Eden is introduced right at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 2-3. I have previously discussed the creation story (see part 1 of the series) as well as the main characters in the garden story, namely Adam and Eve (see part 2). Now, I focus on the garden itself. Although the basic theme of the garden is well-known, the long tradition behind this theme is for the most part unknown.

The views that readers have regarding the Garden of Eden closely reflects their views regarding Adam and Eve as historical personages or not. Those who believe in a historical Adam and Eve also take the geographical details in the story serious, namely the names of the rivers and the areas through which they flow. Various interpretations have been offered as to where the garden was located, some placing it in southern Mesopotamia, even in the Persian Gulf. Others think that the garden was located in the north, in Turkey or northern Iran. Nowadays some even argue that the garden was originally located in the Great Rift Valley in Africa where homo sapiens is said to have originated.

Even those who do not take the story serious as referring to real historical events may be interested in the history of the motif within the framework of the ancient Semitic world. As such, we should carefully consider the Biblical tradition about this garden. In this regard, any discussion of the Garden of Eden should commence with a careful analysis of the main features of the garden mentioned in the story. We must first ask certain basic questions, for example: Was the garden in a plain? Or was it situated on a mountain? Did the rivers originate or converge in the garden? What do we know about the tree(s) in the middle of the garden? Such an analysis will allow us to research the history of these motifs and see where they were first used. From this important insights could be gained. Only then should we engage with the questions about the geographical details and the historicity of this garden.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden [1] is introduced in Genesis 2:8. We read that "the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden". Various interesting things are said about this garden:

1. All sorts of trees grew in the garden, both those that were "pleasant to the sight" and those who were "good for food". Two of these trees are singled out, namely the "tree of life" and the "tree of knowledge of good and evil". Both these trees grew in the middle of the garden (Gen. 2:9, see also 2:17; 3:3, 6, 17, 22, 24). God forbid Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and when he and Eve did, they were chased from the garden to stop them from also eating from the tree of life.

2. There is the reference to a river which watered the garden. Another four rivers are mentioned: "and from hence [i.e. the garden] it was parted, and became four heads" (Gen. 2:10). These rivers were the Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel (Tigris) and the Euphrates. If we take the reference to "heads" as the upper headwaters of these rivers, then this garden must have been situated somewhere high in the mountains.

3.  God's abode could have been in or near the garden because we read that He walked in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). What is also quite interesting, is that God speaks in the plural saying: "man has become as one of us to know good and evil" (Gen. 3:22). We find this use of the plural also in Gen. 1:26 and 11:7.

4. The inhabitants of the garden included not only Adam and Eve but all kinds of animals which Adam named. Among these animals was the serpent who tempted Eve. Furthermore, God placed cherubim on the eastern side of the garden. They are associated with "a flaming sword which turned in every way" (Gen. 3:24).

These features can be compared with those mentioned in Ezekiel 28 and 31 where we also find discussions of events that are said to have taken place in "Eden, the garden of God" (mentioned in both chapters: Ezek. 28:13; 31:9). Although Ezekiel tells a different garden story, there can be no doubt that the same garden theme is used. In both cases, it is clearly stated that the events happened in Eden, the garden of God. Although the four rivers are not mentioned, there is an agreement between the two depictions. The depiction in Ezekiel can help us gain a better understanding of some of the things which are implicit in the Genesis story of the garden. The following is said about the garden in Ezekiel 28 and 31:

1. All sorts of trees grew in the garden, among which were cedars and chestnut trees (Ezek. 31:8). One tree is singled out, namely a "cedar in Lebanon" (Ezek. 31:3). This cedar's height was exalted above all the trees of the field and its roots were by great (underground) waters. It seems that this cedar throned over the whole earth: "All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations" (Ezek.31:6). Eventually, it was cut down because of its pride.

2. A certain anointed cherub, "that covereth", was in Eden, the garden of God (Ezek. 28:14). This cherub was very beautiful and wise but became fallen because of its pride.

3. The garden and the mountain of God are closely connected in the story. The garden seems to have been on or near the "holy mountain of God" (maybe lower down on the mountain?). We can deduce this from the fact that the garden of God, in which the exceptionally beautiful cedar grows, is said to be located somewhere in the Lebanon mountains, where one of the peaks probably represented the mountain of God. The top of the "holy mountain of God" was covered with "the stones of fire" (Ezek. 28:14), which could metaphorically refer to the stars [2]. This reflects the extreme height of this mountain. The fallen cherub is said to have been in the garden as well as on the mountain of God.

The second reference in Ezekiel 28 to the "mountain of the God" (Ezek. 28:16) is translated in my Afrikaans Bible as "godeberg", which literally means "mountain of the gods". This refers to the mountain of God where all the "gods" (later called "angels") gathered for the council (or: congregation) of the gods (see Ps 82:1, 6-7 where the angels are called "gods"; Ps. 89:7 where the angels are called "Sons of the Mighty One" [or: God, in the Septuagint] or "saints", i.e. the "holy ones"; Is. 14:13, 14; 1 Ki. 22:19-22; Ezek. 28:16) (I discuss the ancient tradition about the council of the gods gathering on the mountain of God (El), which go back to pre-Biblical times, in [3]). The fallen cherub was clearly one of those gods who was later chased from the mountain of God.

When we compare the two descriptions of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 and Ezekiel 28, 31 we find some obvious agreements in the basic motifs, but also disagreements regarding the details. Among these agreements is a reference to some special tree in the garden which is singled out. In the Genesis 2-3 story this is the tree of knowledge; in Ezekiel's story, this is a beautiful high cedar. Regarding this tree, there seem to be some differences, namely that we find two trees in the Genesis depiction and only one tree in Ezekiel's depiction. Furthermore, both trees in the Genesis story yield fruit; but a cedar cannot do that.

In the Genesis account, there is no explicit reference to a mountain. There is, however, some details that can be taken as an implicit reference to it, namely that the "heads" (headwaters) of the four rivers originated in the area of the garden. From the fact that the same garden theme is used in both stories, which originated from a very old tradition regarding such a garden, we can assume that the Garden of Eden was situated on or near a mountain - the mountain of God.

In the Genesis story, it is mentioned that God walked in the garden. This could imply that He had his abode there - which is also accentuated in Ezekiel's story where we find that the garden is on or near the mountain of God, i.e. where He had his abode.

We also find that both stories include reference to a cherub or cherubim. In the Genesis story, the cherubim guard the gates of paradise; Ezekiel's story is about a particular cherub, the one who "covereth". This could imply that his role was to cover God's face or feet. This cherub became a fallen creature. We can propose that various cherubim were present in the garden and that one of them, clearly a very prominent one, became a fallen creature due to his pride.

How do we explain the differences between the depictions in these two stories? The most important of these is that the garden of the Genesis account lies toward the east whereas Ezekiel's Garden is situated on the Lebanon mountains to the north (Ezek. 31:3). The other difference is that the main trees are different. In Ezekiel's account, the tree became a symbol of the pride which is also ascribed to the fallen cherub and is cut down. To answer this we have to discuss the ancient Semitic tradition regarding such a garden, and the variations to the theme that have crept in throughout the ages.

Ancient traditions

I previously argued that the forefathers of the ancient Israelites brought the traditions that we find in the ancient history (ch. 1-11) in the Book of Genesis with them from their homeland in ancient Sumer (Ur was in Sumer). This includes the garden story. These were the stories that were delivered within the Abrahamic family since the earliest times. In the ancient Middle East, the tradition about the garden of paradise was very old, going back to a very early period. As such, we find the tradition about the garden also in other, extra-Biblical texts, which are much older than the Bible. In this essay, I focus on the Epic of Gilgamesh, the best-known epic in ancient Mesopotamia which dates from Old Babylonian times during the first half of the second millennium BC.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero travels to the west to the mountain of the gods. This epic was written in Akkadian, a Semitic language spoken in Sumer. We read how the hero and his companion, who travelled from Sumer to the west, saw the Cedar Mountain, the "dwelling of the gods" in the distance [4]. In Old Babylonian times, early in the second millennium BC, the Cedar Mountain referred to the Amanus mountain range. Later it referred to the Lebanon mountains. According to the story, there was a creature who was the guardian of the forest, called Humbaba (Huwawa). The heroes killed him to gain access to the mountain of the gods and the garden of trees. There they found a very large and beautiful cedar, which they cut down.

There is clearly a great deal of agreement between this early Semitic depiction of the garden of the gods and Ezekiel's depiction of the "garden of God". This garden had its location high in the Cedar Mountains, on or near the mountain of the gods. In both accounts, one cedar is singled out as being very special (the reason being that it was taken as an image of the axis mundi [5]), which was then cut down. The guardian of the forest, Humbaba, also shows some correspondence with the cherubim in the Genesis story who guards the gates of paradise.

In early forerunners of the Epic of Gilgamesh, we find material which dates back to the Uruk period (ca. 3800-2800 BC). One of these texts, which was first written down during the Ur III period (ca. 2150-2050 BC) [6], is called Gilgamesh and Humbaba (Bilgamesh and Huwawa). Here we read how the heroes travelled across seven mountain ranges before they found the cedar. These "seven mountain ranges" were not on the way to the Amanus mountains in the west but on the journey to the distant land of Aratta to the north of Sumer (the Biblical Ararat). The northern land of Aratta is nowadays located in north-western Iran.

These seven mountain ranges are referred to in the legends told about an early king of Uruk, named Enmerkar, who ruled during the last part of the fourth millennium BC. His servant travelled through the seven mountain ranges to the land of Aratta beyond the Zagros mountains [7]. In the epic called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta we find a beautiful description of the mountain of the gods in the area of Aratta [8]. This means that the mountain of the gods was not originally situated in the west (which reflects developments during the Akkadian period (ca. 2370-2190 BC) when those kings started making long journeys to the Amanus and the Mediterranean Sea in the west), but in the north. And in the early tales about the journeys to that northern land, we find that it was not cedars that grew there, but different trees.

This background helps us to understand the differences between the stories of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 and Ezekiel 28, 31. The story in Ezekiel clearly reflects traditions found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was current at the time of the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel used these when he wrote his narrative. The story in the Book of Genesis, on the other hand, reflects traditions older than the Akkadian period (2350-2150 BC), before the mountain of the gods became associated with the Amanus and later the Lebanon mountains, and the tree of paradise became a cedar [9]. This was still the period when it could be said that the garden's location was in the east (from the land of Canaan). I discuss the early tradition of the tree and its fruit in the next part of the series, which focuses on the serpent).

The geographic location of the garden

We are now in a position to discuss the geographical details given in Genesis 2-3 for the location of the garden. Since the earliest traditions about the mountain of the gods and the garden place these in the northern Zagros mountains, we expect that the geographic details given in Genesis 2 would agree with this. And indeed, this is the area where the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate, namely far in the north, in the areas of the Van and Urmia Lakes. But what about the two other rivers mentioned in the Book of Genesis? The Gihon and Pison rivers.

It has been argued that the Gihon is the Gaihun, of which the name was changed to Araxes after the Islamic invasion of the Caucasus, and that the Pison is the Uizhum [10]. The name Gaihun clearly corresponds with Gihon and we can explain the correspondence between the names Uizhum and Pishon by a typical U to P shift. The tributaries of the Gaihun rise in the mountains to the north of the Van and Urmia Lakes and flow eastward into the Caspian Sea. The Uizhum rises from several springs near Mt. Sahand, east of Lake Urmia, as well as in parts of the Zagros near the city of Sanandaj in north-western Iran. It also flows into the Caspian Sea.

There is also a good correspondence between the other details given in the Book of Genesis and the geographic areas through which the rivers flow. The Gaihum, for example, flows through the Kusheh Dagh (Mountain of Kush), in agreement with the Biblical reference to the "land of Kush" (the reference to "Ethiopia" in the King James Bible is not in the original text; it is merely an interpretation). The Uizhum is also called Kezel Uzun ("dark red" or "gold"), in agreement with the Biblical land of Havilah, "where there is gold".

This northern geographic region could have been the area from where the forefathers of the Sumerians and Semites living in Sumer originated (this discussion is beyond the focus of this essay). This would take us back to a time before the first settlers arrived in the southern plains of Sumer (the Biblical "Shinar"). This is the time in which the Bible places Adam and Eve (see part 2 of this series) [11]. It is quite remarkable that the early traditions of the mountain of the gods in the north and the geographical details in the Book of Genesis agree so closely.

This analysis is based on the ancient Semitic tradition about the Garden of Eden found in the Bible. As such, this tradition is grounded in a long tradition that originated in the ancient Middle East - the world from which Abraham and his descendants came. In some recent studies, it has been proposed that the garden might have been in the Great Rift Valley in Africa where homo sapiens is said to have originated. In this regard, the reference to one of the rivers originating in "Ethiopia" is wrongly taken as the place referred to in the Bible.

In this view, the Biblical Adam and Eve are taken as the earliest "mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam" (I discuss this view in some detail in part 2 of the series). As such, they are taken as historical persons who lived about 200 000 years ago; not people who lived 6000 years ago. The problem with this view is that it totally discards the tradition from which the Biblical story originated. It imposes a scientific view on the Bible without considering the Biblical tradition as such. We can therefore not take this view as a good interpretation of the Biblical text.


In this essay, I discuss the garden of Eden. I focus on the two most important depictions of this garden in the Bible, namely in Genesis 2-3 and Ezekiel 28, 31. I show that the most important features of this garden are that the garden was situated on or near the mountain of God, that there was an exceptional tree in the garden, and that cherubim were found there. These features are also found in other Semitic depictions of this garden which is much older than the Bible. This means that the Biblical depiction reflects a very old tradition going back to an early period in the ancient Middle East. We can think that this tradition was handed over from generation to generation in Abraham's family from those early times.

I also explain the differences between the two Biblical depictions of the garden of Eden, namely that Ezekiel locates the garden in Lebanon, not in the east, and presents the exceptionally beautiful tree in the garden as a cedar, not a tree that yields fruit. These differences are easily explained if we understand the changes that happened throughout the ages in Mesopotamia, according to which the earlier tradition which placed the mountain of the gods in the northern Zagros was replaced by one which placed it in the west (in the Amanus and later the Lebanon mountains). This also shows that the Book of Genesis incorporates very old traditions delivered through Abraham's family - before the tree in the garden became associated with a cedar.

Was there really such a historical garden? Obviously, we cannot prove that. But it is clear that the tradition of the garden located on or near the mountain of the gods is very old. An early mountain which was identified as such could have existed in the northern Zagros. The geographical details in the Book of Genesis agree remarkably well with such a location for the mountain [12].

[1] The Hebrew word "eden" is said to have been derived from the root "adhan", which means "to be delighted". It has also been proposed that it could go back to the Sumerian "edin" or the Akkadian "edinu", which means "open plain".
[2] The "stones of fire" could be a reference to the stars. We find a similar depiction of the mountain of God, called the "mountain of the congregation", in Is. 14:13, which is situated "above the stars of God". The "congregation" refers to the congregation of the council of the gods. Here is also a reference to Lucifer, the morning star, who wanted to sit on the mountain of God, and be "like the Most High". Like the cherub in Ezekiel 28, he was driven from the mountain of God.
[3] Die goderaad in Hebreeuse tradisie ("The council of the gods in Hebrew tradition").
[4] I previously argued that the council of the gods, who gathered on the mountain of the gods (or: God), which is found in the Hebrew and Canaanite traditions, is part of a continuous tradition which goes back to the earliest known traditions in Sumer. I have also argued that the father of the gods, who was called El in Semitic tradition and An in Sumerian tradition, is called the "Most High God" in the Hebrew tradition (see Ps. 82:6). We can compare the names El and An with our names God and Dieu (in French). This shows that the Hebrew God El, the father of the gods, was worshipped from the earliest of times. See chapters 5 and 6 in my book, Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel). In Hebrew tradition, those gods in the council who participated in the rebellion were regarded as fallen creatures.
[5] The world axis. This refers to the rotational axis of the earth which is reflected from the poles into the northern and southern starry heavens. For earthly observers this axis is observable in the rotation of the stars; it gives the impression that the cosmos turns on this axis around the earth.
[6] According to the so-called high chronology of Mesopotamia.
[7] The only known geographical reference to Aratta that is found outside the early Sumerian literature, occurs in the accounts of Sargon II of Assyria's eight campaign. He travelled over the seven mountain ranges across the northern Zagros, where he finally arrived at the river called Aratta. This places the land of Aratta (the Biblical Ararat) near Mt. Sahand in northern Iran. The people who lived there was later displaced to the north and they took their traditions with them. It is possible that the holy mountain of Aratta with its garden became well-known all over the ancient world.
[8]  ETCSL translation 2006, 227-235.
[9] I previously mentioned that there is no post-Old-Babylonian material included in the Book of Genesis (see part 2 of this series). This proves that the Mesopotamian material in the book must date back to at least that period (i.e. the time of Abraham). I argued elsewhere that it was brought by the family of Abraham from Sumer to Canaan (see Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel)). The fact that the tree in the garden of Eden is not a cedar is clearly in line with an early origin for the material in this book.
[10] In my opinion David Rohl, following Reginald Walker, makes a very good case in this regard in his book Legend, the Genesis of Civilization (1998, Random House). He associates the plain of Tabriz in northern Iran with the area of the Garden of Eden. The river which runs through this plain is now called Adji Chay, but was previously known as Meidan, which means "Walled-in garden" - which agrees with the meaning of the Greek word "paradeisos" used in the Septuagint for the garden in Genesis 2. This would then be the river which "water(ed) the garden" (Gen. 2:10). All the rivers mentioned in the Book of Genesis originate in the mountains surrounding this area.
[11] I previously showed that the Biblical Adam corresponds with the Sumerian Adapa (see part 2 of the series as well as a more detailed discussion in Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel). We read about Adapa that he went to the abode of An (God, see [5]), which refers to An's holy mountain. There he had to make certain choices involving the "food of death" (which would bring death) and the "food of life". This could be an implicit reference to a garden situated on or near the mountain of An, in accordance with the very ancient connection between the garden and the mountain of the gods (or: An).
[12] There is a Hebrew tradition according to which another paradise was located in the realm of the dead (see Luk. 23:43). This was also a very old tradition and refers to the abode of the blessed dead. Whereas the original Garden of Eden was situated in the north, near or on the mountain of the gods, this garden was situated at the opposite end of the Mesopotamian world in the Persian Gulf, where the area of Dilmun (since the Akkadian period associated with the island Bahrain) could have represented the abode of the dead. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the hero finds such a beautiful garden, with trees of precious stones and jewels for fruit, on the edge of the Persian Gulf at the barmaid Siduri's abode. 

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. (Posted on
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a philosopher and scientist (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science, and eschatology.

The Book of Genesis, Intro: The Book of Genesis: The Sumerian Hypothesis
The Book of Genesis, part 1: Does the creation narrative of Genesis 1 support the idea of a young earth?  
The Book of Genesis, part 2: Adam and Eve: were they the first humans?
The Book of Genesis, part 4: The Serpent of Paradise
The Book of Genesis, part 5: Reconsidering the Fall
The Book of Genesis, part 6: The origins of Satan: the ancient worldview
The Book of Genesis, part 7: Who is Elohim?
The Book of Genesis, Part 8: The "ancient history" of Genesis 4-11: Myth or history?
The Book of Genesis, Part 9: The Great Flood: Did it really happen?
The Book of Genesis, Part 10: Abraham holds the key

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