A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; 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)
Sectarian Bible interpreters have assumed that because these verses name some rivers that are known as existing on earth. To them, this means Eden is a physical place on the planet earth.
But the key to this description is the beginning: “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden.” In other words, the river within Eden was the source of these rivers: “from there it was separated into four headwaters.”
A headwater is the beginning of a particular river. This is considered the source of the river. Since the river flowing from Eden is the source of the headwaters of these four great rivers, we are not talking about a physical location on the planet, because there is not a single physical location on the planet where these mighty rivers (most of which still flow mightily) can be found originating from.
Since there is no physical location where these four rivers diverge from existing on this planet, we can know that this discussion is not describing Eden as a physical location on the planet. Rather, this is a discussion of the transcendental realm. The water (“river”) of the transcendental realm is the source of these mighty rivers from a deeper context.
The context is the spiritual meaning given to these four mighty rivers and their representation of the transcendental world. Why would the source of these rivers be represented as the transcendental world?
While water is a physical element, the nature of water represents part of the nature of the transcendental world.
Water is a humble element. It softly seeps between rocks and soils, and moves downward. Water is soft to the touch and can be penetrated easily. Water supplies life to all living organisms, and is pervasive within the body. Water is also strong and durable, and its motion can gradually wear away even the hardest of elements, such as rock.
By nature, the spirit-persons within the transcendental world are like water, in that they are soft and humble. They are giving and permissive. They also seek the lowest point because they are humble.
Water is also purifying. It is cleansing both inside the body and outside. It carries away dirt, debris and microorganisms. As such, water has been utilized in religious ceremony for many centuries, for its purifying nature.
The spiritual world is pure. It is a place where there is no greed, no suffering, no envy and no hatred. It is full of love and kindness. In this way, the spiritual dimension is also purifying to those of us living within this hate-filled, envy-filled, hellish physical world. Water thus symbolizes the purifying nature of the spiritual world.
This purifying giver of life (water), and the rivers that form from water has long represented the transcendental world for these reasons and more. The mighty rivers of water that have flowed through the Middle east and Asia have thus been considered sacred, and many peoples and cultures have considered their waters sacred because the nature of these waters have their ultimate source from the Supreme Giver of Life, God.
We can also see water’s practical side, as we find that water was the central element during the creation of the physical universe (the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)). Where did these waters come from? They came from God, and God’s transcendental world.
Thus, this description of Eden’s river as the source of the headwaters of these mighty rivers is allegorical, symbolic and practical at the same time. We can also see that there is a pragmatic message behind this description. The meaning is that from this place “Eden” – the spiritual world – comes purity, humility, love, and life itself.
Eden, the spiritual world, is our home. This is where each of us are from. We are not these temporary physical bodies – which get diseased, get old, and eventually die and decompose. Each of us is a living spirit-person. We are eternal. We do not die when the body dies. We lived before this body was born, and we will live after it is dead.
This is a scientific reality. The body is constantly being recycled with new atoms, molecules and cells. The body is not a permanent structure no more than is a waterfall whose waters are constantly changing. When we look at a picture of our body when it was a baby, we are looking at a different body than the one we have one now. All the atoms are different and all the molecules are different, and the cells are new. So what is the permanent person that I describe as “me”?
This is the spiritual living being. And where does that spiritual living being come from then? Each of us comes from Eden – the spiritual world – a place that is transcendental to the physical world. This is the reason for this description of Eden as the source for these mighty rivers. What is trying to be conveyed here is that we and everything around us has originated from the headwaters of the spiritual realm – the Supreme Being.