Even for those who are not Christian, the words “Garden of Eden” have become synonymous with a sort of paradise on Earth. In fact, the name in Aramaic means “fruitful, well-watered” and the Hebrew term is even defined as “pleasure.” But what do we really know about this place where God created the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve.
The Book of Genesis tells us:
“Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Scholars have long disputed where to place Eden on a map of today. After all, Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden after disobeying God and, as far as we know, no man has set foot in the Garden–at least as it is described in the Bible.
The second chapter of Genesis gives us our greatest clue as to where the Garden of Eden was located:
“A river flowed from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divided to make four streams. The first is named the Pishon, and this winds all through the land of Havilah where there is gold. The gold of this country is pure; bdellium and cornelian stone are found there. The second river is named the Gihon, and this winds all through the land of Cush. The third river is named the Tigris, and this flows to the east of Ashur. The fourth river is the Euphrates” (Genesis 2:10-14).
Many have suggested that Eden was located in what is now Iraq, at the head of the Persian Gulf where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet and empty into the sea. Other proposed locations include Azerbaijan, the Armenian Highlands, and the Armenian Plateau. Question 245 in the Baltimore Catechism answers the question of where the Garden of Eden was located:
“The exact place in which the Garden of Paradise — called also the Garden of Eden — was situated is not known, for the deluge may have so changed the surface of the earth that old landmarks were wiped out. It was probably some place in Asia, not far from the river Euphrates.”
As the Catechism implies, it may be impossible to definitively determine the location of the Garden. Not only have maps changed, the actual terrain of the earth–the landscape, even the shapes of continents, have changed since the time God created the Garden. In addition, there are no artifacts to be discovered. We are left only with the descriptions from Scripture to guide us to the approximate location. And, if we ever managed to get the location right, there would be no way to confirm its accuracy because of the many changes to the landscape since God created the earth.
Can we as Catholics, you might wonder, believe that the Garden of Eden did not exist in the actual form of a garden as we understand it today? Church teaching allows that it is possible to believe that not everything in the Bible is communicated in a literal way, while still believing that God is the ultimate author of the Bible and everything within it is true. In his encyclical Humanis Generis, Pope Pius XII explains about the first chapters of Genesis,
“These chapters have a naïve, symbolic way of speaking, well suited to the understanding of primitive people. But they do disclose to us certain important truths, upon which the attainment of our eternal salvation depends, and they do also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and of the chosen people.”
In an explanation on EWTN, Father Echert explains that “The Garden of Eden, if not literal, would certainly represent a world which had a beauty and harmony to it which was lost to man and woman by sin.”
So, what significance does the Garden of Eden, whether an actual location or a figurative reality, have for us today? We know from Genesis that God first created earth to be a place of superabundance, where life flourished and was untainted by sin or even natural disasters. Yet, we also know that the first sin of Adam and Eve changed all of that. When they were cast out of the Garden, we suffered the consequences–still living on an earth full of beauty, but one that is also affected by natural disasters, wars, and other poor decisions made by man.
However, the story is not over. Because Christ saved us from our sins, this New Adam opened the gates to a great Paradise – heaven. And perhaps the only way we’ll ever discover where the Garden of Eden was actually located is if we make it to that heavenly garden and ask.