Was There Really the Garden of Eden?

The garden of Eden, the place where God dwells with his divine council, is known in Greek translation as Paradise.  The word Paradise is a Persian loan word to Greek which refers to a particular type of walled garden.  Likely the most high profile example of a paradise garden in the world today is the Taj Mahal, built according to Persian custom.  An aerial photo of the Taj Mahal reveals even four waterways in parallel to the Biblical description.  Modern literalism has sought to locate this garden somewhere on the planet earth, with the assumption that at some point, usually the flood of Noah, it was destroyed.  While a ‘this worldly’ interpretation of Eden is attractive to many, it fails to explain the way Eden is referred to in the rest of the Old Testament, and the way in which Paradise is described, as still existing, in the New Testament.  Eden does indeed exist, and understanding the way in which Paradise as a place is actually depicted in scripture clears up a great many popular modern debates.

When Eden is introduced in the text of Genesis 2, contrary to some modern claims, it is not given a real world location.  It is, first of all, stated to be ‘in the East’ (Gen 2:8).  East of what is not stated.  Attempts to physically locate the garden, therefore, typically revolve around the four rivers which flow out of the garden (v. 10-14) which are described in geographic detail.  The problem here is that sufficient geographic detail is given to positively identify all four, as has been recognized since even pre-Christian Jewish interpreters.  The four rivers which flow from Eden are the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Danube.  Even a brief perusal of a map, ancient or modern, will reveal that there is no location in this world where the sources of those four rivers branch from each other.  These rivers, however, were the point of origin of the most ancient civilizations known to the Biblical authors.  The flooding of these rivers in the spring deposited fertile soil that could be used to grow crops, producing the first stable human civilizations along these rivers.  Genesis here depicts these rivers, the source of life for these human communities, as flowing out from the presence of God.

The location of Paradise ‘in the East’ is an example of what is termed ‘cosmic geography’.  It stands parallel to the way in which evil dwells, in the Hebrew scriptures, ‘in the North’.  While specific areas like Mt. Hermon and Bashan were to the North of most of Israel, this term also references the cosmic dwelling place of evil.  The Hebrew word ‘tzaphon’, used for the cardinal direction ‘North’, is also used to mean a place that is ‘dark’ or ‘gloomy’.  One of Baal’s titles, Baal Zaphon, is a reference to his dwelling in the North on a particular mountain.  His dwelling is ‘in the North’.  The North is the home of evil throughout the prophetic corpus of the Hebrew Bible (Is 14:13, 41; 41:25; Jer 1:13-15; 4:6; 6:22; 10:22; 13:20; 46:10, 20; Eze 8:3, 5, 14; 32:30; Zeph 2:13).  It is for this reason that the resurrection Gospel of Orthros, and in traditional Western liturgics the Gospel in general, are read toward the North, to proclaim the victory of Christ to his enemies.  Likewise Eden, the dwelling place of God Most High, is ‘in the East’, and so prayers and worship are offered toward the East.

‘Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden’ by Jan Brueghel the Elder

In the ancient near east, gods were considered to live in gardens and on mountains.  Gardens were a dwelling place for gods because of the generally arid wilderness conditions under which most people lived.  The famed hanging gardens of Babylon are an example of an ancient garden temple.  Mountains were thought suitable dwelling places because they reached up toward the heavens and were inaccessible to humans.  Eden is described as a mountain at several points in the Hebrew scriptures, after being clearly described as a garden in Genesis 2:8, 10 (cf. Ezek. 28:13-16).  It is also implied by the fact that these rivers flow down out of the garden.  Adam is created from the dust of the earth and is then taken and placed in the garden (Gen 2:15).  Here again we see that Paradise is a location outside of this world into which Adam is removed as he is brought to live with God on his holy mountain.  This is key to understanding the mission which is entrusted to humanity.  This is a mission that is impossible if Adam remains alone by inability to reproduce (Gen 2:18).

Humanity is created, in Genesis 1, at the climax of creation.  At the beginning of God’s creative activity, he is addressing two problems after creating the heavens and the earth.  The earth is, in Hebrew, ‘tohu wubohu’ (Gen 1:2).  It is formless or chaotic and it is empty.  Over the first three creation days, the chaotic world is put into order (Gen 1:3-10).  Over the second set of three days, the creation is filled with life (Gen 1:14-25).  When humanity is created, however, they are commanded to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1:28).  This command directly parallels the initial problems, humanity is to fill the earth and bring order to it.  Human persons are therefore God’s co-workers to assist in bringing his works to completion (1 Cor 3:9).  Humanity was not created to, at that time, simply passively dwell with God forever in his presence.  Rather, humanity was created to, as God’s image, spread Eden out into the world and make the whole world a Paradise in which God dwelt.  Once this work was complete, then humankind would dwell with God and his heavenly hosts forever.

After their rebellion, however, Adam and Eve become mortal and are clothed with mortal flesh (Gen 3:21).  Adam and Eve had bodies previous to this, but they were different than the bodies possessed in this world, just as those of this world differ from the bodies with which humanity will be clothed in the resurrection.  They were then, as the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great describes it, ‘cast out into this present world’.  They are no longer able to stand in the presence of God or upon his holy mountain (Ps 24:3).  They therefore do not take Eden with them when they come into this world and are unable to remedy the emptiness and chaos which they find.  God’s work in creation remains incomplete, as Christ points out (Jn 5:17) until Christ brings it to completion (Jn 19:30).  After this, Christ rests on the seventh day and rises to begin making all things new (Rev 21:5).  In the end, the world becomes Paradise, filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14), and God’s presence fills it.

‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ by Thomas Cole

Until Christ brings all things to completion, Paradise still exists as the place where God dwells atop his holy mountain, such that Christ himself can promise the wise thief that he will be with him there (Luke 23:43).  Likewise, St. Paul could visit Paradise in a visionary experience (2 Cor 12:2-4).  Sinful humanity, however, is unable to ascend his holy mountain, despite rebellious attempts to do just this and bring God down as at the tower of Babel (Gen 11:4; compare John 3:13 and Rom 10:6-8).  Until man can once again come to dwell in the presence of God, Yahweh the God of Israel condescends to bring his dwelling place to humanity.  This is exemplified at Mt. Sinai, which twice becomes the mountain of God in order for God to meet in person with Moses (Ex 3:1-6; 19:2-6).  The people of Israel cannot even touch the mountain without dying (Ex 19:10-13).  The seventy elders of Israel, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons are able to, after purifying themselves, ascend partway up the mountain and see Yahweh, the God of Israel (Ex 24:9-11).  Only Moses, however, can ascend to the peak (v. 12).  In order to dwell with his people, therefore, Yahweh gives detailed instructions to Moses to construct the tabernacle after the pattern of God’s dwelling which he beheld on the mountain (Heb 8:5).  God therefore descends his mountain to come and dwell with humanity.  This is a foreshadowing of the incarnation of Christ, as seen by St. John’s use of the phrase ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’ (Jn 1:14).

Later, though he has no need of it and was under no compulsion, Yahweh consents to dwell within the temple, and Mt. Zion becomes the mountain of God for as long as he dwells there (1 Kgs/ 3 Kgdms 9:3-9).  The decorations of the temple are designed deliberately to evoke the garden of Eden as a realization of the place where God dwells (7:15-50).  This includes both the imagery of flowers and fruit trees as well as imagery of the cherubim and other members of God’s divine council who dwell there with him.  In Ezekiel’s vision of the new and eternal temple, he sees streams of water flowing forth from it (Ezek 47:1-12).  Joel similarly uses the river imagery to connect the temple and Eden (Joel 3:18).  Paradise is the place where Yahweh dwells, and so the place where Yahweh dwells becomes Paradise and streams of living water flow from him (Jer 2:13; 7:13).  It is for this reason that the Theotokos herself is poetically described as a ‘mystical Paradise,’ because Yahweh the God of Israel came to dwell within her womb.

Ultimately, the imagery of Paradise, the permanent dwelling of God, comes to reside upon the person of Jesus Christ himself.  This is a function of all of the language in the Gospels identifying Christ with the temple (cf. Jn 2:19-21).  Christ also identifies himself as the source of the water of life (Jn 4:10-26).  In the Troparion of his Nativity, Christ is called ‘the East from on high’.  In the new heavens and the new earth, the whole world drinks of the water of life that flows forth from the presence of God (Rev 21:6).  There is no temple not because the whole world is now a temple, but because the Yahweh the almighty God and the Lamb is their temple (Rev 21:22).  For Christians, however, this promise becomes a present reality.  The one who drinks of the water of life which flows from Christ himself, as Christ said at the feast of Tabernacles, has a spring of water come to flow from within him (Jn 7:37-38).  He is speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:39).  When a Christian comes to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, God himself is dwelling within them making them a temple (1 Cor 6:19).  This also means that, as St. Silouan says, “The Lord has given the Holy Spirit upon the earth, and in whomsoever He dwells, that one feels paradise within himself.”

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