Let me start with two statements.
One Sunday, John woke up and started walking.
On Monday, Jeff started walking from New York to Los Angeles.
Which of these two statements is more vivid? Probably the statement about Jeff because you know that New York and Los Angeles are far apart and that walking from one to the other is unusual. Jeff’s journey prompts questions like “Why would anyone do that?”. Meanwhile, John’s journey means nothing because there is no geographical context. All you know is that John started walking.
The point is that the inclusion of geographical references adds to a story and gives it color. Geographical understanding helps you understand what the people in the story are up against. The Bible contains a lot of history; therefore, it contains a lot of geographical detail because the geographical detail adds to our ability to understand Biblical history and relate to the people who lived it; thus giving us a deeper understanding of what happened in the past and what God is trying to communicate to us.
Genesis 2 contains some basic geographical information that puts the entire Bible story into context. However, before we look at the text, let me start with a caveat. Genesis 2 describes the geographical setting of the Garden of Eden. When I read a passage like this, I want to locate all the places on a map. The problem in this case is that Genesis 2 refers to a garden that existed before Noah’s flood. Genesis was written after the flood. The flood described in Genesis 6-8 covered the entire surface of the earth. A flood on that scale would have dramatically altered geography; thus, the geographical setting of the Garden of Eden would have been greatly altered by the time Genesis was written. Therefore, as we read Genesis 2, we need to think about what the geographical terms meant to the author of Genesis and the people he was originally writing to instead of getting hung up trying to locate everything on a map.
Now let’s look at the text. Read the following verses and pay attention to the geographical terms. The location of some of the geographical terms is unknown; however, verse 14 mentions the Tigris and Euphrates and the identity of those rivers is well known.
Gen. 2:10 Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers.
Gen. 2:11 The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.
Gen. 2:12 The gold of that land is good; the bdellium and the onyx stone are there.
Gen. 2:13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush.
Gen. 2:14 The name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Again, notice that the text mentions the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In order to understand the importance of this detail, we need a little geographical and historical context.
If you look at a world map and think about the land masses, you see that on one side of the globe are North and South America, and on the other side of the globe is a huge land mass made up of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa meet each other in an area of the world called the Middle East. Right in the center of the Middle East are the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This places the Tigris and Euphrates at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Now let’s think about the broad scope of world history. All of the oldest civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, India, and China, were located on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. If you locate these ancient civilizations on a map, you see that the Middle East was in the middle of these ancient civilizations. In other words, the Middle East and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were at the center of ancient world history.
In the 20th and 21st century, we do not think of the Middle East as being the center of the world or the home of the dominant world powers. However, in Bible times the land of the Bible was the center of the world. The dominant powers during the Old Testament time period were in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Biblical narrative took place between those two regions.
This means that Bible history did not take place in some forgotten corner of the world; instead, the Biblical narrative took place in a well trodden area that was front and center of ancient world history. The author of Genesis located the Garden of Eden at the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; thus, placing the Genesis narrative in the Middle East and stating clearly that history started in the Middle East.
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