Gihon: The River of Paradise
Hespeler, 6 November, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 2:8-17, John 5:1-9, Psalm 46
he second chapter of the Book of Genesis describes a garden – a place of idyllic existence where, the Bible says, humanity first came into being. This garden was perfect – the only place where all life (human and animal alike) lived together in peace and harmony. But the story goes on from there to tell us that
the garden was lost and that humanity will never be able to enter it
again as long as this world exists.
The loss of the garden has been a powerful idea that has possessed many people down through the ages who have sought for a way to get back to it. Some have sought to do it by questing after the tree of knowledge of good and evil – seeking to reclaim the garden by expanding human understanding. But they have not got us there yet by that route and sometimes have led us far astray.
But what if we could find it in another way – what if it were a place on the map? I mean not a literal location that you could just punch into your GPS and drive to, but what if the geographical description in Genesis was meant to point us to a metaphorical place where we can find it in this world. The garden is said to be in a very particular (if unusual) place: “A river flows out of Eden to water the garden,” it says, “and from there it divides and becomes four branches.” The four branches are given names, some of which seem familiar. They are, Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates.
Now, half of those rivers are immediately recognizable. Tigris and Euphrates are the two great rivers that flow through the land of Mesopotamia, which means the land between the two rivers. They flow today through the country of Iraq and they mark the place where archeologists tell us that human civilization first came into being at a place called Sumer.
The other two rivers are harder to recognize. Since half of the rivers would have been well known to the people who first heard this story, the assumption is that the other half would have been as well. The first river called Pishon – a name totally unknown otherwise – and we’re told that it flows in a land called Havilah which is also unknown. But then it says that, in the place the Pishon flows, there is gold, bdellium and onyx stone. Since bdellium (a precious resin) is only found in sub-Saharan Africa and onyx was a precious stone commonly used in Ancient Egypt, some have suggest that Pishon must be another name for the River Nile which starts its course in sub-Saharan Africa and flows through the rich valleys of Egypt. The Nile would fit well in the company of the Tigris and the Euphrates as Egypt was the second great civilization of the ancient world.
In fact, when you think about it that way, it suggests a very powerful symbolic meaning for this description of the Garden of Eden. The passage states that, out of the original garden and the things that happened there, there flowed the three of the great rivers of the ancient world – Tigris, Euphrates and Nile. And these three rivers were the cradle of human civilization itself in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This suggests to me that maybe the story of the garden was not intended to explain the origin of the human species so much as it was intended to explain the origin of human civilization.
Think of the symbolism of the story of Eden. The humans are expelled from the garden, an idyllic rural existence, by their choice to pursue the tree of knowledge. Civilization is marked by the quest for knowledge and calls on people to move from a rural lifestyle into the city.
Civilization has brought so many blessings, of course, but that relentless search for knowledge has also created many problems (nuclear proliferation and climate change are two that come to mind) that may destroy us in the long run. In many ways the loss of the garden, that loss of connection with the land has also been very costly. These three rivers may give us an angle on the story of the Garden of Eden that can help us to explore those very issues which are still important today as we still search for the garden that we have lost.
But that brings us to the fourth river, the Gihon. It has long proven the hardest to identify. There has been a lot of speculation about the identity of the Gihon down through the centuries. Some have also associated it with the Nile River (or a branch of the Nile) as well because it is said to have flowed through the land of Cush and Cush is an ancient name for the land that we call Ethiopia. But there is another possibility that comes from the name of the river itself. The name comes from a Hebrew root that means “to burst forth,” which doesn’t sound like a good name for a river so much as for a spring which might be the source of a river.
And it just so happens that there was a spring that fed a river that was called Gihon – a spring that was very well known to the people who first heard this story in the Book of Genesis. It was a small spring that flowed from a spot very close to a mountain called Zion. This spring was extremely important to the ancient Israelites because it made that mountain into a good and defensible spot where you might build a fortress and a city. The city that they built there was called Jerusalem, the city of David and his capital.
The spring mattered because a decent water supply was so hard to come by in that part of the world. It made it possible, for example, for the city of Jerusalem to withstand many attacks and sieges over the centuries, something that is celebrated in the Psalm we read this morning (which was likely written as a national celebration when the city had survived an attack): “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.” The river celebrated in that Psalm is none other than the Gihon and it describes the river as a sign of the presence of God in the city.
Now, traditionally, interpreters have hesitated to identify the river Gihon that is said to flow from Eden in Genesis with the Gihon that flowed in the city of Jerusalem. In fact, I cannot find any commentary that even suggests that they are intended to be the same river. You can probably guess why. People have had a hard time seeing how this tiny stream in Jerusalem belongs in the same league as mighty and historically significant rivers like Nile, Tigris and Euphrates. Jerusalem, as a centre of civilization, is also hard to compare with the much larger ancient cities of Mesopotamia and the Nile valley. If the Gihon is just a small stream in Jerusalem, it doesn’t seem to belong in the company of the other rivers of Eden.
But here is the thing: the description of the rivers of Eden never really made sense geographically speaking. Rivers simply do not work like they are described in this passage – especially with several rivers dividing off from one original river and then somehow flowing to various far-flung corners of the world. But that is okay because I don’t think that this description was ever meant to be taken as pointing to a literal geographical location.
The people who first heard and repeated this story did not hear it as a story about something that happened a long time ago in a remote geographical location. It was a story that was part of their daily lives and, if they could look over and see a stream, flowing by the streets of Jerusalem, and recognize that stream as a river that once flowed from Eden, that would have said some significant things to them about the world that God created and their place in it.
For one thing, it gave them a sense that they had a place among the great nations and empires of the earth. They looked at the great powers of the world such as Babylon (which lay between the Tigris and the Euphrates) and Egypt along the Nile and they could say, “Yeah, but look at us! We’ve got a river of Eden that flows through our city too. We too are one of the world’s great civilizations.” It was a matter of national pride and identity.
But the connection between the Gihon River that they knew and the Gihon River of Eden was about more than that. They saw it as a point of connection between their daily lives and the ideal world promised in the original story of the garden.
Here is the thing that I have noticed. The Gihon River of Jerusalem is rarely named in the Bible but there are many passages and stories about this river. The river flows right through the whole Bible though you may have never noticed it. In fact, the very last chapter of the Book of Revelations – of the whole Bible – includes a description of a river that flows from the throne of God in the new heavenly city of Jerusalem – a new Gihon. It is the final comforting image of the Bible. Isn’t it interesting to think that the Bible both begins and ends on the banks of the River Gihon?
In our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, we find ourselves at the Pool of Beth-zatha – a pool in Jerusalem that was fed, in the time of Jesus, by the spring of the River Gihon. In this story we learn that, by the time of Jesus, the people of Jerusalem had come to believe that the waters of that stream had healing and restorative powers when the spring burst forth and stirred the water. Did they come to that belief because somewhere in their ancient traditions they connected this stream in Jerusalem to the ancient waters of Eden and the wholeness that humanity had known there? Did they believe that those waters had a healing power because of that connection?
Of course, maybe that doesn’t matter because in the story in the Gospel of John, the Gihon waters prove unnecessary and Jesus himself is able to heal the invalid. Perhaps that tells us that Jesus himself is a stronger connection to the wholeness of Eden than any stream could be.
I don’t know if Eden in the Book of Genesis was ever intended to be understood as a literal place that once existed. I don’t know if the events that we are told took place there were meant to be taken literally or symbolically. But I do know this: the story of Eden is true because it tells me so much about what it means to be human in this world. One thing it speaks to me about is that sense of what we have lost as humans on this planet. I believe that we should be able to live together in peace and harmony. I believe that there is no good reason why everyone in this world should not have enough to get by. I know that war and all of the destruction it brings shouldn’t happen – it doesn’t make sense. And there is this disconnect between how I think the world should be and how it actually is. I long for Eden – that perfect picture of what it should be – and I do not find it. I’ve never seen the garden and yet I miss it.
Traditionally, Christians have thought of Eden as totally cut off from the present world. It is a garden found in the remote past at the beginning of the world or in a remote future (a garden restored) at the end. But I am beginning to suspect that the Israelites didn’t see it that way. They walked through the streets of Jerusalem and saw, right there, a stream that was, for them, a river of Eden. The garden wasn’t remote for them, it was right there.
What might change, do you think, if we began to think in the same way? What if we could look out the door here, at the Speed River that flows just over there, and see it as a river of Eden. It might give us some hope that the dysfunction of this world isn’t fated to be, that Eden is just over there.
What if every river is a river of Eden? What if we all could find our way there by following them back? It is an intriguing idea and one that I hope to continue to explore as we continue this journey to the biblical Gihon next Sunday.