Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by the Rev. Fats Montsho:
Does Swedenborg in any of his books geographically describe Eden in detail?
Thanks for the interesting question, Rev. Montsho!
When we hear “Eden” we usually think of the garden of Eden. However, the Bible says that God planted a garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8). This suggests that Eden was a wider area, and the garden was an area within it.
Still, the second Creation story in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 focuses on the garden of Eden, not on the wider area. So we will also focus on the location and meaning of the garden of Eden, while not forgetting that the garden was most likely a specific area within the land of Eden.
In terms of physical geography, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) associates the garden of Eden with the land of Canaan. This is unusual. The garden of Eden has most often been placed in ancient Babylonia just north of the Persian Gulf, in the area where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet.
However, Swedenborg did not think of the garden of Eden as a literal garden where two literal human beings were placed. Rather, he said that the Creation stories in Genesis represent an early culture of human beings who were the first to become aware of God and spirit. He therefore spends most of his time explaining the spiritual symbolism of the garden of Eden. Because of this, he gives us only a few hints about the physical location and geography of Eden. And yet, what he does provide ties in beautifully with its spiritual symbolism.
Finally, in a story in his book Marriage Love Swedenborg describes a beautiful spiral garden in heaven. This garden has a fabulous tree at its center that some of the angels who live in the area call the tree of life. This heavenly paradise garden offers a picture of the garden of Eden that is both physical and spiritual.
Let us look at all of this more closely.
The story of the garden of Eden
First, let’s read the story. We’ll include only the parts about the garden itself. You can read the entire story in Genesis 2–3.
On the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet on the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a mist would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” . . .
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”
He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” . . .
Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 2:4–17; 3:1–13, 22–24)
The Bible’s description of the garden of Eden
To get the picture clearly in our mind, let’s highlight some key points in the description.
Adam and the garden
First, notice that God created Adam before the garden of Eden existed. Adam was not created in the garden of Eden.
Unlike the first Creation story in Genesis 1:1–2:3, in which God creates plants on the third day, and human beings are the very last thing God creates, in the second Creation story Adam—a Hebrew word that means “humanity”—is the very first thing God creates. It is only after God has already formed Adam out of the dust of the ground that the Lord God plants a garden in Eden, and places the man there.
This different order of creation has a specific spiritual significance, which will have to wait for another article. Preachers who ignore what the Bible says and pretend that these are just two different versions of the same story are doing damage to the Bible’s literal meaning and destroying its spiritual significance. God did not make a mistake in opening the Bible with two very different Creation stories, one right after the other.
A garden in the east
The Bible says that God planted a garden in Eden. But more specifically, it says that God planted a garden in Eden, in the east (Genesis 2:8).
And when God drove the humans out of the garden of Eden, God placed a guardian at the east of the garden (Genesis 3:24).
The east is mentioned one more time in the description of the garden, when it says in Genesis 2:14 that the Tigris flows east of Assyria—or perhaps east of the ancient city of Assur, which was located on the west bank of the Tigris, and was the original capital of Assyria.
None of the other cardinal directions appear anywhere in the story. It is worth noting, then, that the garden of Eden is strongly associated with the east.
The four rivers
Next, notice that it says a river flows out of Eden to water the garden. It doesn’t say that the river flows out of the garden, but out of Eden. This is one other indication in the text of the Bible that the garden is a place within the land of Eden. (It is important to pay attention to the exact words that the Bible uses.)
However, it does say that from there—meaning from the garden—it divides and becomes four branches, which are four rivers:
We know where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are. This is why Eden has traditionally been placed in the area where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, just north of the Persian Gulf.
However, the rivers Pishon and Gihon don’t fit into this schema. There are not two more rivers joining where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.
Besides, although the text of the Bible isn’t crystal clear on this point, based on similar scenes elsewhere in the Bible such as the river flowing out of the Temple in Ezekiel 47:1–12 and the river of life flowing from the throne of God in Revelation 22:1–2, it makes the most sense to read the story here in Genesis 2 as describing a river that flows out of the garden of Eden and then divides into four rivers that continue to flow downstream from there.
The problem is, nowhere in the world of the Bible—a region stretching from Media and Persia (present day western Iran) in the east to Egypt and Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in the west, and from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea in the south up to the Black Sea in the north—is there a place where four great rivers flow out of a single river. Even the Tigris and Euphrates don’t do this. From being two rivers they join into one just before flowing into the Persian Gulf.
That’s why there has been a great debate over the years about these rivers. Various Christian scholars have made various conjectures about which rivers are meant by the Pishon and the Gihon, most of which are not very convincing.
Many Christian literalists simply throw up their hands and say that the Great Flood rearranged earth’s geography so that the rivers are no longer where they used to be. However, though floods may fill in some areas with silt, and they may cause giant mudslides, they don’t move whole mountain ranges to entirely different places, nor do they move the channels of major rivers to entirely different places. Besides, the Bible doesn’t say that the geography of the earth changed after the Flood. This is pure speculation and human invention in an attempt to cram the Bible into the straitjacket of fundamentalist dogma.
If we don’t attempt to force these rivers to do literally what they’re supposed to do according to Genesis 2:
- The Pishon is still the most difficult to identify. Based on its description of flowing around the land of Havilah (location unknown), where there are gold and precious stones, it is most likely associated with the region of the Arabian peninsula east of the Red Sea, or perhaps the region of Africa west of the southern part of the Red Sea, in present day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since there is no major river in this area, some have speculated that it refers to the Red Sea itself. And yet, it is described as a river, not a sea. Others have more fancifully identified the Pishon with rivers of India such as the Indus or Ganges. But this is unlikely, since India was beyond the boundaries of the biblical world.
- The Gihon most likely refers to the Nile. It is described as flowing around the land of Cush, which usually (but not always) refers to ancient Ethiopia—present day northern Sudan—through which the Nile flows. There the giant S-curve formed by the Nile could be described poetically as “flowing around the whole land of Cush.”
The general picture that emerges is of rivers branching out in various directions in the regions around the land of Canaan, which is roughly equivalent to present-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and parts of western Syria. This is the basis on which Swedenborg says that the garden of Eden was in the land of Canaan. We’ll get to that later.
For now, it is best to understand that the description of the four rivers in Genesis 2 does not correspond to any actual configuration of rivers in the world of the Bible. This is one indication that the Creation story was never meant to be taken literally.
The arboretum of Eden
Next, notice that the garden of Eden is a garden of trees.
After the initial mention that there were no plants or herbs growing from the ground at the time God formed Adam, the only plant life mentioned in the entire story of the garden of Eden is trees—except where God is informing Adam of the consequences of his actions, and what his life would be like outside of the garden of Eden.
Specifically, when it describes God creating the garden of Eden, it says, “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).
Most of the action in the garden centers around the trees:
- God tells Adam that he is free to eat from every tree of the garden except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16–17).
- The serpent tempts Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and both she and Adam do so (Genesis 3:1–7).
- When they realize they have made a mistake, and are ashamed about it, they hide from God among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8).
- After their disobedience, God expels the man, or humanity, from the garden of Eden, and places a guardian to prevent them from gaining access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–24).
The garden of Eden is not a vegetable garden, nor is it a flower garden, nor is it fields of grain. The garden of Eden is an arboretum. The lives of the human inhabitants of the garden of Eden revolved around trees. Adam and Eve were originally arborists. Their food also came from the trees. Only after Adam had disobeyed God does God tell him he will eat, not from the trees, but from the plants of the field, through hard labor (Genesis 3:17–19).
The placement of the trees
Speaking of the trees of the garden, there is a common misconception that God planted both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. But that’s not what the Bible says. Read carefully, now:
Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 9)
Did you notice it? Verse 9 says that God planted the tree of life in the middle of the garden. Then it says God created the tree of knowledge of good and evil, without specifying its location.
Why do people think God planted the tree of life in the middle of the garden also? We can blame that on Eve, who later said to the serpent:
We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden God has said, “You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” (Genesis 3:2–3)
By the time the serpent was tempting Eve, the tree of knowledge of good and evil was looking mighty appealing to her. As a result, her mind shifted from perceiving the tree of life as the center of the garden to perceiving the tree of knowledge of good and evil as the center of the garden. In other words:
- God put the tree of life in the center of the garden.
- Eve put the tree of knowledge of good and evil at the center of the garden.
It’s all a matter of perception. For more on the significance of this mental shift, please see: “Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?”
The forbidden tree
And finally, after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God banished them from the garden of Eden and posted a guardian to prevent them from eating from the tree of life and living forever.
There is no mention of Adam and Eve ever eating from the tree of life; only from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil instead of eating from the tree of life—which was one of the many trees that God had originally allowed them to eat from.
Ever afterwards, except in a few poetic passages in the book of Proverbs and in the apocryphal and deuterocanonical books of 2 Esdras and 4 Maccabees, the tree of life is absent from the Bible story. No one has access to it, and no one eats from it.
Only in the final book of the Christian Bible does the tree of life reappear:
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)
At length, after thousands of years of pains, sorrows, struggles, and battles throughout human history, God says that those who conquer will once again be allowed to eat from the tree of life.
For the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, the tree of life will be freely available:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Between the main street and the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. . . . Blessed are those who do his commandments, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:1–2, 14)
Once humanity had disobeyed God and been banished from the garden of Eden, it would be an eons-long battle before we would once again have access to the tree of life, its life-giving fruit, and its healing leaves.
The location of the garden of Eden according to Swedenborg
As I said earlier, Swedenborg focuses largely on the spiritual meaning of the garden of Eden. However, he did have his own idea of where the garden of Eden was located: in the land of Canaan.
Because Swedenborg did not read the stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis literally, he had no need to harmonize the description the garden and its rivers with the physical geography of the Middle East. Still, he associated the garden of Eden with the land of Canaan because he saw that land, not so much as the cradle of humanity (which we now believe was most likely in Africa), but as the cradle of spirituality and religion among humanity. In his book The New Jerusalem he wrote:
There has been religion in the land of Canaan since the very earliest times. Because of this, all the places in Canaan mentioned in the Bible, along with the surrounding regions, came to represent and symbolize the deeper, spiritual levels of religion. (The New Jerusalem #5)
This, together with Swedenborg’s understanding of the meaning of the great rivers Euphrates and Nile as boundaries of the land of Canaan, plus a few other indications in the Bible, is why he places the garden of Eden, not in its traditional location in Babylonia, but in Canaan. He wrote:
Just where that territory was before the Flood can be seen from the lands circled by the rivers that came from the Garden of Eden—rivers that the Bible frequently describes as marking the boundaries of the land of Canaan [Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 1:7; 11:24; Joshua 1:4; 1 Chronicles 5:9]. Its location can also be determined from what follows, such as the fact that the Nephilim were in the land; and the land they were in was Canaan, as established by the presence of the children of Anak, who were some of the Nephilim (Numbers 13:33). (Secrets of Heaven #567)
See also Secrets of Heaven #4447:2, where Swedenborg explicitly states that the garden of Eden was in the land of Canaan.
Though Swedenborg never connects the Pishon and Gihon with any physical, geographical rivers, he seems to have identified the Gihon with the Nile, which he viewed as the southern border of the land of Canaan. (In actuality the southern border of Canaan was most likely not the Nile nor the easternmost branch of its delta as some ancient Jewish commentaries held, but rather “the Brook of Egypt” mentioned in Numbers 34:3–5; Joshua 15:2–4; Ezekiel 47:19; 48:28, which almost certainly refers to the Wadi El-Arish, a wash that drains the bulk of the Sinai Peninsula into the Mediterranean Sea southwest of the present-day Gaza Strip.)
The symbolism of the garden of Eden and its rivers
Though Rev. Montsho’s question was not about the spiritual significance of Eden, all of this will make more sense if I give a thumbnail sketch of the symbolism of the garden of Eden and its rivers. Swedenborg says that these early stories in Genesis were never meant to be taken literally, but were myths or symbolic stories about our spiritual origins. These stories come alive when we learn what spiritual realities they refer to.
In their deeper meaning, the two Creation stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 refer to the earliest development of spiritual awareness among humans. We now know that the roots of humanity stretch much farther back than the 6,000 or so years that the Bible story covers if we read it literally. Even Swedenborg was not aware of the evolutionary history of humans, since he lived before the age of Darwin.
And yet, his explanation of the meaning of the first chapters of Genesis dovetails well with our present-day knowledge that at some point in human evolution, homo sapiens began to have religious beliefs. This is evidenced, for example, by their beginning to bury their dead rather than just leaving them on the surface of the earth to be eaten and to decompose, as other animals do.
The Creation stories of Genesis are symbolic stories of how humans first became aware of God and spirit many thousands of years ago, and in that way rose up from being mere animals to being human beings.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of the spiritual symbolism of a few key points of the story of the garden of Eden:
- The east symbolizes love, and especially the love of God. The east is where the sun rises, and the sun is an ancient symbol of God.
- The garden with its trees symbolizes the developing knowledge and intelligence of these early humans.
- The tree of life symbolizes our connection with God, from whom our life comes.
- The tree of knowledge of good and evil symbolizes a desire to decide things for ourselves based on our own understanding of things rather than trusting in God for our understanding of our life and path.
- The serpent symbolizes knowledge that comes from our physical senses, and a general orientation toward trusting knowledge that comes from external, physical sources rather than trusting insight that comes from internal, spiritual sources.
- The rivers that flow out from the garden represent the living truth of spiritual awareness and intelligence that flows out into all areas of our life when we are focused on God and spirit.
- Walking with God in the garden represents the living, personal relationship with God that these early humans enjoyed.
- Being expelled from the garden represents the loss of that early loving, innocent, and wise relationship with God when we chose to do things our own way based on the appearances shown to us by our physical senses instead of following the guidance that God and the angels give us from within.
In short, the story of the garden of Eden is a symbolic story of the first spiritually advanced human society in mythic, prehistoric times. This early culture, which Swedenborg calls “the earliest church” or “the most ancient church,” was motivated primarily by love for God. Its people had a highly developed understanding of God and spirit. They are the cultural source of our ancient myths of a golden age in the primeval times of humanity. These stories, rich in spiritual symbolism, were originally passed down orally from ancient times before being written down many generations later. Though outwardly these early humans would have looked simple, even primitive to our eyes, inwardly they had a living and vibrant relationship with God and with the angels of heaven.
Swedenborg goes into much more detail about these early, spiritually enlightened humans in his explanation of the spiritual meaning of Genesis in the first volume his great work Secrets of Heaven (Latin: Arcana Coelestia).
A vision of the garden and the tree of life
In answer to Rev. Montsho’s original question, Swedenborg did not provide a detailed geographical description of Eden because he did not believe it was a geographical place. Instead, he saw it as symbolizing an early, spiritually aware human culture. Beyond locating that culture in the land of Canaan (greater Palestine), he focused entirely on explaining the spiritual meaning of the garden of Eden.
However, in his travels in the spiritual world he did encounter a magnificent and mystical garden that offers a physical and spiritual picture of the garden of Eden for our mind’s eye. Let’s let Swedenborg have the last word in his description of that garden in Marriage Love #13:
After this the angel said to them, “It’s not noon yet. Come with me to our prince’s garden by the palace.” They went, and at the entrance he said, “Behold the most magnificent garden in this heavenly community!”
But they answered, “What are you saying? There’s no garden here. All we see is one tree with fruit that looks gold on its branches and crown, and leaves like silver decorated at the edges with emeralds, and under the tree little children with their nurses.”
At this the angel caught his breath and said, “This tree is in the middle of the garden, and we call it the tree of our heaven. Some call it the tree of life. But go ahead and get closer. Your eyes will be opened, and you’ll see the garden.”
They did, and their eyes were opened, and they saw trees with plenty of tasty fruits, twined around with vine tendrils, their tops bending with fruit toward the tree of life in the middle. These trees were planted in an unbroken row that went out and around in steady circles or spirals like an endless helix. It was a perfect helix of trees. Species after species followed one another according to the excellence of their fruits. The first sweep of the helix started at a considerable distance from the tree in the middle, and in the interval danced a sparkling of light, so the trees of the spiral gleamed with a steady, uninterrupted brightness from the first one to the last.
The first trees, called trees of paradise, were the finest of all, luxuriant with the plumpest fruits, and they have never been seen before, because they do not grow and cannot survive in the soil of the natural world. Next followed olive trees, then vine trees, then fragrant trees, and finally trees with good wood for woodwork. Here and there in the helix or spiral of trees were seats made by training and interlacing the young branches of the trees behind the seats, and they were enriched and ornamented by their fruits. In this perpetual cycle of trees were openings that led to flower gardens, and from there to lawns laid out in fields and terraces.
When the angel’s party saw these they exclaimed, “Why, it’s a model of heaven! Wherever we turn our eyes, in flows something heavenly and paradisal that defies description!”
The angel was glad to hear this. “All the gardens in our heaven are forms or images that represent heaven’s blessings at their sources,” he said, “and the influence of these blessings lifted up your minds, so you exclaimed, ‘Why, it’s a model of heaven!’ But people who do not receive that influence see these paradises as nothing but forests. Everyone who has a love of usefulness receives that influence, but people who are in love with fame—and not because of usefulness—don’t receive it.” Then he explained and taught what the different things in the garden represented and stood for.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
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