Genesis ii. 10-14.

June 25, 2010

And a river went out the place of pleasure to water paradise, which from thence is divided into four heads.  The name of the one is Phison: that is it which compasseth all the land of Hevilath, where gold groweth. And the gold of that land is very good: there is found bdellium, and the onyx stone.  And the name of the second river is Gehon: the same is it that compasseth all the land of Ethiopia.  And the name of the third river is Tigris: the same passeth along by the Assyrians.  And the fourth river is Euphrates.

10-14a. The river of paradise and its four divisions, literally taken.

St. Ambrose: “These therefore are the four rivers; that is, their Hebrew names.  The first is called Ganges by the Greeks; it flows opposite India.  Gehon is the Nile, which surrounds the land of Egypt, or Ethiopia.  Mesopotamia is so called, because the Tigris and Euphrates enclose it; because between these two rivers it is constituted, because even from afar common opinion pronounces the name for those things” (De Paradiso, iii. 14.  Cf. S. Augustine, S. Bede, infra; St. Jerome, LHQG).

St. Augustine: “Concerning these rivers: what more must I do to confirm that they are real rivers, and not figurative expressions of things that do not exist, as if the names themselves did no more than signify something, even though the regions through which these rivers flow are extremely familiar, and well-known to nearly all peoples?  Indeed, concerning these, precisely because it it is evident that they are straightforward (for two have had their old names changed, just as the river that was once called the Albula is now the Tiber: Gehon is the same as that which is now called the Nile; the river once called Phison is now the Ganges; and the two others, the Tigris and Euphrates, have retained their ancient names), it is necessary for us to be reminded to take, first of all, the other things also according to their literal sense, and not to think that they are figurative ways of speaking; rather, that the things they describe to us both truly happened, and also symbolize something.  This is not because a parable cannot narrate something that is obviously not a particular event, like that which our Lord tells of the man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell in among robbers: for who cannot perceive and see plainly that this is a parable, that it is a completely figurative manner of speaking, although it is true that the two cities named in it exist today?  But it is in this way that we would take the four rivers, if any necessity compelled us to take the other things that are told of paradise, not literally but figuratively: but since no reason prevents us from understandering these things first in a literal sense, why do we not instead simply follow the authority of Scripture in the things described to us, and then proceed, at length, by searching for whatever else they mean?” (De Genesi ad litteram, VIII. vii. 13.; cf. infra, 8-14).

“Or shall we be disturbed, because it is said of these rivers that the sources of some of them are known, and those of others utterly unknown, and therefore this passage cannot be taken literally, because the rivers are divisions of the one river of paradise?  On the contrary: it is to be believed that the very place of paradise, where, as the completely trustworthy Scriptures testify, the four rivers are divided, is utterly remote from the knowledge of men; and that those rivers whose sources are said to be known, in places went underground, and after a stretch of long regions burst out in other places, where they are regarded as being known in their sources.  For who does not know that many bodies of water are accustomed to do this?  But this is known in those cases, when they do not run for a long time underground.  Therefore: a river went out from Eden, that is from the place of delights, and watered paradise, that is all the beautiful and fruit-bearing trees, which shaded the whole ground of that region” (ibid., 14.  Cf. St. Thomas, ST. Ia q. cii. a. i. obj. 2, ad 2; Strabus, Glossa ordinaria).

St. Bede: “It is evident, building on the most trustworthy authors, that the sources of all those rivers which are said to go out from paradise, are known in our land.  That of Phison, which is now called Ganges, is in the Caucasus mountains; that of the Nile, which Scripture calls Gehon, is now far off from the mountain Atlas, which is the last border of Africa in the west.  And the Tigris and Euphrates come from Armenia …” (In Principium Genesis I col. 45.).

St. Jerome: “Phison: ‘expression of the eye,’ or ‘change of face.’  Hevilath: ‘sorrowing,’ or ‘giving birth.’  Gehon: ‘breast’ or ‘heart,’ or ‘steep’ or ‘broken off.’  Ethiopia: ‘darkness, or gloom.’  Assyrians: ‘forming up, falling in line.’  Euphrates: ‘fruit-bearing’ or ‘fertile,’ or ‘thriving’” (LNH).

11-12. Phison; Hevilath; gold, bdellium and onyx.

St. Bede: “Phison is translated ‘change of face,’ and rightly, for it shows a very different aspect in our parts, that is, a much baser and more common one, than it did in paradise.  Hevilath is a region of India, so named because it was possessed after the flood by Hevila the son of Jectan, who was the son of Heber the Hebrew patriarch, whom Joseph also reports to have possessed, with his brothers, from the river Cephen and the region of India up to the place which is called Hieira.  And Pliny the Second says that the regions of India abound with veins of gold more than other lands, for which reason their islands have taken the names of chrysos and argyros from the abundance of gold and silver there.  Bdellium, as the same Pliny writes, is a spice tree, dark in color, with an abundance of olives, and the leaves of an oak, with the fruit of figs, of the same nature as gum.  Its sap is clear, whitish, smooth, rich, wax-like, easily softened, bitter to the taste, of a good smell, but when poured out more fragrant than wine; the book of Numbers makes mention of it: Now the manna was like coriander seed, of the colour of bdellium:[1] that is, clear and whitish.  And onyx is a precious stone, so called because it has in itself a mixed whiteness like that of a human fingernail.  For onyx is Greek for nail, or claw.  Arabia also produces it, but Indian onyx has little flames, surrounded by white bands; the Arabian is dark with downward bands” (In Principium Genesis I col. 46.  Cf. Strabus, Glossa ordinaria.).

Strabus: “The old translation has [for bdellium and onyx] ‘carbuncle and prase.’[2] The carbuncle is of the color of fire, and is said to light up the darkness of night.  Prase is green, for which reason it takes its name from the Greek for leek, πράσον (Glossa ordinaria; cf. the texts used by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Bede In Pentateuchum, etc.).

14. The Tigris and Euphrates.

St. Bede: “The Tigris is called by this name [‘tiger’] on account of the swiftness, similar to that of a beast running this way and that with excessive speed” (In Pentateuchum, col. 207.).

“With regard to the Euphrates, Scripture does not say where it flows or which lands it surrounds, because it flowed near the promised land, and so was able to be known very easily by the people of Israel, who would read this in that land” (In Principium Genesis I col. 46.).

10-14b. The river of paradise and its four divisions, mystically taken.

St. Ambrose: “There was a fountain[3] watering paradise.  What is this fountain if not the Lord Jesus Christ?  He is the fountain of eternal life, just as the Father is; for it is written: For with thee is the fountain of life.[4] And then, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.[5] Both fountain and river are read to water the fruit-bearing forest of paradise, so that it may bear fruit unto eternal life.  Therefore this fountain, as you read, a fountain proceeded from Eden: that is, the fountain is in your soul.  Whence Solomon says: Drink water out of thy own cistern, and the streams of thy own well.[6] This is the fountain that proceeds from a soul well-trained and full of pleasure: this is the fountain that waters paradise, that is, the virtues of the soul sprouting forth with most eniment merit” (De Paradiso, iii. 13.).

St. Bede: “Now these four rivers signify the four virtues: prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice” (In Pentateuchum, col. 207.  Cf. St. Ambrose, infra; St. Augustine, De Genesi contra Manichæos, II. x. 13.; 8-14, infra; St. Gregory, Glossa ordinaria ad loc.; St. Peter Damian, Oposc. lx. vii.).

St. Ambrose: “Therefore Phison is prudence, and accordingly it has good gold, the splendid carbuncle, and the prasine stone.  For we often find prudent men referred to as gold.  Whence the Lord says through his prophet: I gave him gold and silver.[7] And David says of the prudent: If you sleep among the midst of lots, you shall be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and the hinder parts of her back with the paleness of gold:[8] because he who clings to the Old and New Testaments is able to proceed fruitfully in discussions on the very secrets of the wisdom of God.  Therefore Scripture calls this good gold; it is not the monetary gold that is corruptible and earthly.

“The second river is Gehon, next to which the law was given to the Israelites, when they were in Egypt, that they might withdraw from Egypt, and with girded loins eat the lamb,[9] which clearly pertains to temperance.  For it befits the chaste and sanctified to celebrate the pasch of the Lord … Therefore Gehon, in which is the figure of chastity, is well said to surround the land of Ethiopia, to wash away the sordid body, and halt the advance of the wretched flesh.  For Ethiopia is translated ‘sordid’ and ‘vile.’  And what is more sordid than our body?  What is so similar to Ethiopia as that which is black with the darkness of sin?

“The third river is the Tigris, which passeth along by, or goes against, the Assyrians, to which transgressor Israel was led captive.  This river is said to be swifter than the others near the land of the Assyrians, those who ‘form up’ or ‘fall in line,’ as the name is translated.  Therefore whoever takes the transgressing vices of his body captive with fortitude of soul, and orders them to higher things, is deemed similar to this river.

“The fourth river is the Euphrates, which is translated ‘fertility’ and ‘abundance of fruit,’ displaying an eminent justice, which feeds every soul” (De Paradiso, iii. 15-18.).

St. Augustine: “Therefore, prudence, which signifies the very contemplation of truth apart from every human utterance … encompasses that land, that has gold, and the carbuncle, and the prase stone – that is, it has the discipline of living, which shines forth as if refined from all earthly filth, like the best gold; it has truth, which no falsehood conquers, just as the splendor of the carbuncle is not conquered by the darkness of night; and it has eternal life, which is signified by the green of the prase stone, representing the vigor that does not dry up.  Now that river that surrounds the hot and scorching land of Ethiopia signifies fortitude, quick and diligent with the heat of action.  The third, the Tigris, passes along by, or against, the Assyrians, and signifies temperance, which resists lust, the powerful adversary of the counsels of prudence; whence very often in the Scriptures we find ‘Assyrians’ put in place of ‘adversaries.’  It is not said along what the fourth river passes, or what land it encompasses: for justice pertains to all the parts of the soul, because it is itself the order and equity of the soul, and the other three harmoniously join themselves to it” (De Genesi contra Manichæos, II. x. 14.  Quoted loosely in St. Bede, In Pentateuchum col. 207.).

St. Isidore: “The four rivers of paradise are the four Gospels, sent out to be proclaimed to all peoples” (Quæstiones in VT, iii. 3.  Cf. St. Augustine, infra, 8-14.).

8-14. Paradise to be taken both literally and figuratively.

St. Augustine: “Not a few have taken all of paradise, where the first parents of the human race are said to have existed by the truth of sacred Scripture, for intellectual concepts, and have turned its trees and fruits into the virtues and habits of life; just as though they were not visible and corporeal things, but were said or written in this way for the sake of signifying intellectual abstractions.  As if there could not be a corporeal paradise, because it can also be understood spiritually; just as, for that reason, there were not really two women, Agar and Sara, and from them two sons of Abraham, one from the slave, the other from the free woman, because the Apostle says the two Testaments are represented in them;[10] or for that reason there was no rock that Moses struck and out of which water flowed, because there a figure of Christ can be understood, as the same Apostle says: And the rock was Christ.[11] Let no one for this reason, however, prevent paradise from being understood as the life of the blessed; its four rivers as the four virtues, prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice, and its trees all the useful disciplines, and the fruits of the trees as the habits of the pious, and the tree of life as wisdom herself, the mother of all good things, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil as experience of transgression of the divine command.  Certainly God fittingly established it as a punishment for sinners, but man did not experience it for his own good.  These things may also be understood with reference to the Church, so that we may better receive them as prophetical indications of things to come; that is, paradise is the Church itself, as we read in the Song of Songs;[12] the four rivers of paradise, the four Gospels; the fruit-bearing trees, the saints; the fruits of the trees, the saints’ good works; the tree of life, certainly the Holy of holies, Christ; the tree of knowledge of good and evil one’s own free will.  For man himself cannot despise the divine will without thereby learning the difference between adhering to the common good or delighting in his own.  The man who loves himself is given to himself, so that filled with fears and sorrows he may sing in the Psalm – if, that is, he is even aware of his own evil: My soul is troubled within myself;[13] once set right, let him then say: I will keep my strength to thee.[14] Let these things be said, as well as any others that may be more conveniently said regarding the spiritual understanding of paradise, and let no one prohibit them – provided that at the same time the utter truth of its history be believed in the narration of the events entrusted to us” (De civitate Dei, XIII. xxi.).


[1] Num. xi. 7.

[2] LXX: ὁ ἄνθραξ καὶ ὁ λίθος ὁ πράσινος.

[3] Vulgate/DR, LXX: river.

[4] Ps. xxxv. 10.

[5] John vii. 38.

[6] Prov. v. 15.

[7] Osee ii. 8.  Vulgate/DR: I gave her corn and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver, and gold …

[8] Ps. lxvii. 14.

[9] Ex. xii. 11.

[10] Gal. iv. 22-31.

[11] 1 Cor. x. 4.

[12] Cant. iv. 12-13: My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.  Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard, cypress with spikenard.

[13] Ps. xli. 7.

[14] Ps. lviii. 10.

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