Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A river runs out of it

Genesis 2:10-14

These verses bothered me for years. Rivers don't behave this way. You don't have four rivers rising from one source and dividing into separate headwaters. The rivers especially don't go from one spot to both Iraq (the Tigris and Euphrates) and Ethiopia (Cush, where the Gihon flowed). Doesn't work that way.

In dry country, rivers are life. I lived in western North Dakota (a climate in some ways similar to Israel) for five years, a mile from the banks of the Missouri River. Driving that mile you would see an amazing transition from brown, dry, rolling hills down the coulees to the lush, green bottom land along the river. Water changes everything. Throughout the Bible, rivers symbolize the presence of God's Spirit, the overflowing life of God, the flow of energy and power and vivaciousness that makes things grow. (See John 7:37-39 for example.) But in real life, rivers flow from diverse sources, then come together. They do not start from a common source and then separate.

But the story is about us and about our situation, not about what was true back then. So dig deeper. The river rises in Eden, in the garden. The garden of Eden is not a paradise in the traditional sense of that word, where life is all play and our every desire is sated. No, Eden includes work. (More about this in a later post.) Eden is creation as it was designed to be -- fully connected to the powerful presence of God without barriers. The man (and a bit later, the woman) are placed within that creation not as tyrants but as caretakers. The soil, the wildlife, the plants and the people all live under the lordship and majesty of the Lord God who delights in this creation and comes walking through the garden in the cool of the day.

Now we begin to approach the point. Out of this proper relationship with God (he is Lord and Master) and with his good creation (we are caretakers), the rivers flow into all the world to water it and nurture it and bring it life. Life flows from proper relationship with God.

We so often miss this. We think we must get our lives together, get the river flowing right, and then bring that goodness into our relationship with God. But outside of Eden we can't do it. First we must enter into Eden, into right relationship with God and with his creation. Then the river starts to flow. This is what we are created for. We can't manage our lives and then bring our carefully managed selves to God for his approval. Instead -- and this is only possible through Jesus Christ and what he did on the cross -- we bring our brokenness and our shortcomings to God and discover that we are welcomed into his presence. Once we return to him just as we are, he begins to transform us and our other relationships, including our relationship to the rest of creation. (Yes, I know there's an angel outside the garden with a flaming sword to prevent us from returning. But you're jumping ahead of the story. We'll get there.) The river of life flows out of the garden into the world, not vice versa.

Near the end of the Bible, in Revelation 21-22, we find these images recast. Now the river of life flows from the throne of God out to water the city where God's people are gathered together. God himself is with them, and he wipes every tear from their eyes. The separated nations are united around the throne. The four living creatures, representing all animal life, are there as well. The tree of life grows along the river banks. (You'll notice the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not mentioned!) All creation is together in right relationship under the lordship and majesty of God and of the Lamb, and their life flows from the throne.

Okay, so that's all well and good. What difference does it make?

How about this one detail: If we get this, all the millions spent on Superbowl ads could be given to some worthwhile cause. All the hours of brilliant creativity that went into filming and computer graphics and scripts and actors and animation and special effects could be directed to something that benefits the world. All the billions of dollars consumers will spend on these products and all the billions of hours watching and rewatching and debating about the value of these various commercials could be redirected. Why? Simple -- because living in Eden, we will not be tempted to believe the lie that if we just buy these products, buy into the value of these ads, we will have life. We will know that our life comes from a right relationship with God.


  1. There is another theory about the four rivers. The Kura river has its source not far from the source of the north branch of the Euphrates. If one considers the Kura river to be the same as the Pishon river then the entire narrative makes literal sense. The Kura (Pishon), Aras (Gihon), Tigris, and Euphrates rivers all have their headwaters in the same 20 sq mile geographic area of modern Turkey. The Kura runs through Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, a region with lots of gold and minerals; The Aras runs through Iran (in an area were the people are called Cushites); and of course, the Tigris and Euphrates flow through Iraq.

    Just a theory, but it possible to have four rivers flow out of one headwater....

    If true, this would put the literal garden of Eden in eastern Turkey, near the modern day town of Erzurum.

  2. A second theory posits that geologic change (the great flood or seismic action) completedly erased (or modified) the original routes of these four rivers. By making this assumption, one can place the garden in guite a number of areas - perhaps modern day Israel. Since God uses the town of Jerusalem in both Jesus' death and in Revelation (the New Jerusalem) perhaps Eden was also located in Jerusalem. Without any evidence, of course, one could then consider rivers flowing to the south (Ethiopia-Cush), the east (Iran-Iraq), the north (Turkey-Asia), and west into the great sea.

    While I don't pretend to know the details, my soul and spirit still, through faith, cause me to belief that Genesis is accurate (Truth) in historical, scientific, and spiritual senses. And I can certainly see how God wrote this in such a way as to make it relevant to us today. And I like that.

    Thanks once again for your mind opening words.