A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; and from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
(Genesis 2:10–14, NIV)
In my book Navigating Genesis, I explained how the four great rivers described in Genesis 2 all joined together in the Garden of Eden, then split apart and emptied into the Indian Ocean. My explanation has drawn public rebukes from young-earth proponents, specifically those associated with the organization Answers in Genesis (AiG). This article is an answer to their challenges.
In an article on AiG’s website, prominent young-earth leader Danny Faulkner argued that Genesis 2:10–14 “clearly states that the four rivers parted from a single source in Eden, not that the four rivers flowed together in Eden. Here Ross has freely reversed the statement of Genesis 2:10 to fit his selection for Eden’s location being in the Persian Gulf.”1 Faulkner concluded, “My early accusations and those here against Ross are damning.”2
His distortions of the Bible are dangerous because some Christian leaders and laypersons—whether through ignorance, laziness, or faithlessness—fail to look at what God actually says in His Word and will accept Dr. Ross’ fairy tale explanations that twist God’s Words into a caricature in which even the reason Jesus Christ came into the world is obscured.3
These are strong words. Is it really a twist of the Bible’s words to conclude that four rivers both came together and split apart within the Garden of Eden? Let’s take a look at the evidence and reasoning behind my interpretation.
In a formal debate, Terry Mortenson, another AiG associate, insisted that the reference to headwaters in Genesis 2:10 implies that the source of all four rivers flowed out from the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word for “headwaters” is pārad. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament identifies pārad as a verb, not a noun, and defines it as “divide, separate.”4
Translator Jay Green’s Interlinear Bible shows that the literal Hebrew of Genesis 2:10 is closely reflected by the King James Version.5
- Literal Hebrew: “And a river went out from Eden to water the garden, and from there it was divided and became into four heads.”
- King James: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.”
The Hebrew root word for “heads” is rō’sh, which Theological Wordbook defines as, “head; top, summit, upper part, chief, total, sum.”6 William White, a specialist in biblical languages and contributor to Theological Wordbook, wrote that the use of rō’sh in Genesis 2:10 refers to “parts or portions of things.”7
In the view of the AiG scholars, Noah’s flood completely restructured Earth’s entire landscape. Thus, they argue, we can’t know the pre-flood locations of Eden or any of the geographical regions (such as Havilah or Cush) or rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:10–14. My question is, if this were the case, why would the Holy Spirit inspire Moses to provide such detailed geographical information? There really is no purpose for Genesis 2:11–14 other than to give readers indications of these rivers’ and the Garden’s locations.
As I explained in Navigating Genesis, the geographical locations of Asshur (Assyria), Cush (the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia), and Havilah (Hijaz mountains of Saudi Arabia) are not mysteries. The Bible mentions Asshur and Cush many times and Genesis 2:11–12 supplies identifying details about the land of Havilah. These three locations are separated from one another by many hundreds of miles; therefore, the source for all four rivers cannot reside in the same location. It makes sense, then, to claim that the four rivers flowed into Eden from three widely separated geographical regions, joined together to become one river within the Garden of Eden, and thence divided into separate rivers to empty into the Indian Ocean.
Note that the New International Version’s (NIV) translation of Genesis 2:10 states that Eden’s river had four headwaters. This wording does not insist that all the headstreams were located in Eden. It is just as possible (indeed, more probable) that each river source could have resided in regions well beyond Eden. Such an interpretation also is consistent with the King James Version and the literal Hebrew text, though their wording implies that the “four heads” were downstream, rather than upstream, from Eden. (In the NIV the headwaters could be either upstream or downstream from Eden.)
Readers may wonder why I did not spell out all this detailed explanation about the rivers of Eden in Navigating Genesis. In all honesty, I did not think it was necessary. The implications of Genesis 2:10–14 seemed obvious to me. However, Faulkner’s charge that I “freely reversed the statement of Genesis 2:10” made this defense necessary.
It also illustrates an important principle in resolving disputes about the interpretation of biblical texts. We must always look at the larger context of a Bible verse, which includes checking out how other scriptural texts use similar words and phrases. Genesis 2:11–14 clarifies the meaning of Genesis 2:10. The references to Eden, Asshur, and Cush throughout Genesis and the rest of the Bible provide additional insights and confirmations.
It disappoints me that AiG’s scholars felt it necessary to use such strong language against my view of Genesis. Nevertheless, I continue to hope that the age of the earth controversies that are so damaging to the church’s mission can be resolved amicably if we apply sound hermeneutics in a spirit of Christian charity.