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The Impossible Spaces: A Commentary on Gen. 2:8–15

Santiago García-Jalón
Philosophy, The Pontifical University of Salamanca, 37002 Salamanca, Spain
Religions 2021, 12(8), 656;
Submission received: 14 July 2021 / Revised: 9 August 2021 / Accepted: 11 August 2021 / Published: 18 August 2021


A close analysis of the text of Gen. 2:8–15, pertaining to the Garden of Eden, shows the structural differences between said text and others from ancient mythologies that mention or describe a paradise. Likewise, that analysis suggests that the data provided by the Bible to locate paradise are merely a narrative device meant to dissipate all doubts as to the existence of a garden where God put human beings. Similar to other spaces that appear in the Bible, the Garden of Eden is, in fact, an impossible place. Throughout the centuries, however, recurring proposals have been made to locate paradise. As time went by, those proposals were progressively modified by the intellectual ideas dominant in any given era, thus leading the representations of the location of Paradise to be further and further away from the information provided by the biblical text.

1. Introduction

For centuries, the Bible has proved an inexhaustible source of motifs for art. Scenes, characters, and places have been endlessly represented. Those representations have decisively influenced the reception of the biblical texts, which became known to society not directly, but through their iconography.
This iconography, in turn, naturally followed different patterns in different ages, depending on the progress in representation techniques, theoretical ideas, biblical exegesis, etc. Thus, the representations of the biblical motifs act as a converging point for very different intellectual approaches, and one from which popular beliefs about the contents of Scripture spring. An illuminating example of this can be found in Acts 15:8–9. The images in the scene narrating St. Paul’s conversion have turned the idea that the Apostle-to-be fell from a horse into a widespread cliche, firmly rooted in popular culture, despite not fitting the actual narration.
Similarly, Gen. 2:8–15, which narrates how God grew a garden in Eden and put the first human beings there, has generated numerous representations that heavily draw on the imagination in order to give details about the Garden of Eden, on account of the scarce information provided in the Bible.
Moreover, alongside the representations of paradise, during the Middle and Modern Ages, high culture hosted a debate about the location of the Garden of Eden, with multiple proposals. Throughout the centuries, the elements taken into consideration to locate paradise have changed according to the intellectual momentum at any given time.
As time passed, the ancient idea of paradise being in the East—a reference that varied as the notion of the ‘East’ was widened by different expeditions to Asia—gave way to a desire to locate the common source of the four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden, which first required them to be identified. Furthermore, this task was more and more influenced by cultural factors that reveal a deep intellectual change in the attitude towards the sacred Scriptures.
This paper intends to offer an overview of the different approaches to the matter, comparing them to the contents of the biblical text and looking into the reasons for the shifts happening in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. In comparison with the representations of the Garden of Eden, the iconography of the rivers of paradise holds a minor place in art history. It probably contributes, however, more efficiently to highlighting the impact that factors external both to the Bible and to the religious institution that receives and transmits it have on the interpretations of the biblical text.
A comparative literature analysis tries to explain the understanding of the world of the text that explains any coincidences or discrepancies. In this regard, the passage we are analyzing stands as an excellent model to show how the biblical text gives a peculiar form to recurrent topics in the literature of its time. More specifically, how it uses those topics to create what we are calling an “impossible space”: an imaginary place that the text describes in such minute detail that the reader is persuaded to consider it a real place, even though the information provided about it makes it impossible to figure it out.

2. The Structure of the Text

Similar to other texts of ancient mythologies, the Bible mentions the existence of a paradise, in the following well-known terms (Gen. 2:8–15)1:
8And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 10And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. 11The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12and the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. 13And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. 14And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates. 15And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
As can be seen, this fragment is framed by two affirmations regarding man: God put man into the Garden of Eden that He had grown (v. 8) and “the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (v. 15).
Information about what the garden was like is very scarce. It takes up just v. 9—“And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”—and partially v. 10: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads”.
In contrast, the biblical text devotes four verses (11–14) to identifying the four branches into which the ancient river was parted. Obviously, whoever could locate those four heads and determine their common source would have found paradise. Which, according to v. 8, should be placed in Eden, “eastward”.
Thus, in contrast with the concision of the description of paradise—the reader only learns that it contained “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”—Genesis provides ample geographical data: the garden is in Eden, eastward, and from it flow the four rivers, the names and the courses of which are specified profusely.
This way of proceeding is all the more surprising compared to what is habitual in other works of ancient and medieval mythology that deal with paradises. Even though in Greek mythology the garden of the Hesperides is said to be located westward, as its name implies, no further details are provided. The same goes for Dilmun, as mentioned in the legend of Enki and Ninhursag, although the author is likely to have had in mind an idealized Sumerian city. The same applies to the Islamic Yanna.
Quite the opposite: those texts usually indulge in listing the wonders that paradise has to offer. Let us consider the description of Dilmun, where details are meant to convey the prosperity of a Sumerian town blessed by the gods (Jiménez Zamudio 2013, pp. 20–21; Alster 1983)2:
49Q–49V. The city’s dwellings are good dwellings. Dilmun’s dwellings are good dwellings. Its grains are little grains, its dates are big dates, its harvests are triple …., its wood is …. wood.
50–54. At that moment, on that day, and under the sun, when Utu stepped up into heaven, from the standing vessels (?) on Ezen’s (?) shore, from Nanna’s radiant high temple, from the mouth of the waters running underground, fresh waters ran out of the ground for her.
55–62. The waters rose up from it into her great basins. Her city drank water aplenty from them. Dilmun drank water aplenty from them. Her pools of salt water indeed became pools of fresh water. Her fields, glebe and furrows indeed produced grain for her. Her city indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land. Dilmun indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land. At that moment, on that day, and under that sun, so it indeed happened.
The text enumerates at length the goodness of Dilmun: its houses, the fruits of the soil, the waters, etc. The Koran and the hadiths do the same when they discuss the future delights that await the righteous: they shall find rivers of milk and honey, orchards, houris, etc.
Interestingly, the Bible itself contains an example of the approach that favors a minutely detailed description of paradise over any attempt at locating it: the passage where the prophet Isaiah recounts what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. Frequently in terms subconsciously transposed to the world as Genesis narrates it (García-Jalón 2006, p. 434), the fragment reads as follows (Isa. 65:17–25)3:
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die a hundred years old; but the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.
It could be gathered that this text is more deeply influenced by Eastern mythologies that the one in Genesis. The latter seems more interested in the location of paradise than in paradise itself. Given the abundant cartographic data, Gen. 2:8–15 appears to be challenging the reader to locate the Garden of Eden. That endeavor has, as a matter of fact, been undertaken by many in the course of history, with the available data as a starting point. This alone makes elaborating on the cartography of paradise worth our while.

3. The Data Used to Locate the Garden of Eden

The first piece of information provided by Genesis is that the garden was located in Eden, eastward. The biblical text mentions Eden repeatedly, as a name of person (e.g., 2Chron. 29:12; 31:15; Ezek. 27:23), as a name of a place (e.g., 2 Kings 19:12; Isa. 37:12; 2 Kings 19:12), or in an ambiguous manner (e.g., Isa. 37:12). None of those texts, however, offers any elements that may allow us to locate the land of Eden. We do know that eden means delight, which is a suggestive piece of information in itself (Koehler and Baumgartner 2000: s.u.).
As it happens, the land of Eden must not have been familiar to the addressee of Genesis, since the text feels compelled to point out that Eden was “eastward”. Needless to say, this indication is hardly informative at all: it is not only vague; it does not even specify eastward of where. The authors who have glossed this annotation have observed that the East is the noblest place on earth, supporting this view with a wide array of arguments.
This same lack of familiarity on the reader’s part with the names appearing in the text, as well as the almost nonexistent information to identify the places that are discussed, resurfaces again apropos of the four streams that branched away from the river originating in Eden.
About those three rivers, in addition to the names, some supplementary information is given to the reader. This suggests that the name alone is not considered informative enough to identify which river it is. If we are to accept this reasoning, the opposite happens with the fourth river: it is said to be the Euphrates, and this fact alone seems to be regarded as sufficient for the reader to ascertain the identity of it.
It now seems necessary to revise the translation we have used, so as to clarify some aspects.
The first river mentioned is the Pishon. It is said to encircle the entire land of Havilah. That said, in Hebrew, the phrase “land of Havilah” has at least two different interpretations. According to the first one, Havilah is a toponym and its function is to indicate “land of”. In this case, Havilah would be a hapax in the biblical text. As for the second one, Havilah should be understood as a name of a person, acting as a noun complement with possessive meaning. In the Bible, Havilah is listed among the children of Cush, the oldest son of Ham and grandson of Noah (Gen. 10:7; 1Chron. 1:9). Masoretic Text admits either reads, whereas Septuagint favors the latter.
Be that as it may, the location of this land is impossible. The biblical text offers profuse information about it: in Havilah there is gold, good gold, and bdellium and lapis lazuli also abound. For all their abundance, though, each of these pieces of information is not quite useful in itself—so much so that, if the reader actually attempted to identify the river, they would hardly make any progress at all.
About the second river, the Gihon, it is said to encircle the entire land of Ethiopia. In rendering it so, the translator follows Septuagint. In contrast, Masoretic Text speaks of the “land of Cush”. We find this name, Cush, again, after appearing as Havilah’s father in the first occurrence. The Scripture mentions the Cushites somewhat frequently, understanding as such a dark-skinned people (Jer. 13:23). Based upon the translation of Septuagint and on Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 1, 6), it is safe to assume that Cush can be identified as a territory more or less coincident with present-day Ethiopia.
Regarding these first two rivers, one more consideration is to be added: an etymological analysis of the names of the rivers shows that they are common words. Pishon means “stream”, or perhaps “pouring”. As for Gihon, it means “spring” or “flowing” (Douglas 2000: s.v.) Thus, not even the names of the rivers shed light on where paradise could be.
To name the third river, the version we have used adheres to MT, which calls it Hiddekel—etymologically, arrow or fast-paced course—and strays from LXX, which usually translates Hiddekel as Tigris, on the assumption that the former is the Hebrew name for the latter. In doing so, it follows a tradition originating in the uses of Old Persian (Douglas 2000: s.v.) This practice of Septuagint, however, is not without exceptions.
In the codices Vaticanus and Alexandrinus, Dan. 10:4 leaves untranslated the name Hiddekel, in contrast with Sinaiticus, which renders it as the Tigris. The three codices record the name of the river in inverted commas, as an explanation of the sentence that precedes said explanation, so the translated text reads: “I was by the great river, namely the Tigris [the Hiddekel]”. When Masoretic Text behaves in a similar way, the editor suggests that it is an interpolation.
At any rate, also in the case of this third river a piece of information is added that helps to identify it: it is said to run east of Assyria. Once again, this observation encourages us to conclude that the mere name is not enough to identify what river we are talking about.
The only difference between the supplementary information provided about the first river and the following two is that, unlike in the first case, in the other two some references are introduced that are supposedly known to the reader—the land of Cush and Assyria, respectively—and consequently require no further explanation.
Finally, the fourth river mentioned is, in Masoretic Text, the Phrat, about which no information but the name is provided, always translated as Euphrates in the old versions, probably also following in this case the usual Old Persian nomenclature (Douglas 2000: s.v.).
At this point, we can take a step forward. The biblical text, which is not focused on describing paradise, but rather on providing data about its location, actually offers very little information in this regard, since the data are hardly informative, despite their abundance.

4. A Narrative Strategy and Its Meaning

From a present-day perspective, everything concerning the location of the Garden of Eden should probably be regarded solely as a pragmatic resource: the text draws the reader’s attention towards the possible location of paradise, persuading them to accept its existence implicitly (vide García-Jalón 2003). Thus, it is rooted in the reader’s conscience that there exists an idyllic place, untouched by the corruption of sin, that could theoretically be accessed. That would explain why attention has mainly been paid to the cartographic data, no matter how extensive yet barely informative they are, at the expense of the description of paradise. It seems as though the text is challenging the reader to embark upon a quest to find the paradisiacal garden, which implies accepting its existence without the shadow of a doubt.
This kind of resource is not unusual in the Bible. When Ezekiel describes his vision of the temple, the overwhelming profusion of information actually prevents us from figuring out exactly the blueprint of the building (Ezek. 40–43). This has led to many different interpretations and to a number of proposals as to what it was like (vide Martínez Casas et al. 2004; vide item Goudeau 2014). Something similar was pointed out by Laguna Paúl regarding the so-called “House of the Forest of Lebanon”, (Laguna Paúl 1993) and this can also be said about the distribution of the promised land in Josh. 14–21 (García-Jalón and Guevara 2016, pp. 174–239).
As regards the location of paradise, as well as the rest of the instances mentioned above and others that can be found in biblical literature, the effectiveness of this narrative strategy is proven by its results: many authors and travelers have pursued the task of finding the Garden of Eden or reflecting upon where it is.
If what we are dealing with here is a narrative strategy to dissipate all doubt about the existence of paradise, it is necessary to consider why the biblical text gives so much importance to the existence of the garden that God grew in Eden. To this end, a brief consideration of influences must be made.
The biblical account of Eden borrows heavily from ancient mythologies (Kramer 1969, pp. 37–41; vide Bottéro and Kramer 1993): the existence of a garden that contains a grove, the trees of knowledge and life, the possibility for man to attain immortality if he eats the fruits of those trees, the tempting snake, the punishment for transgression, etc.
However, the coincidence of these recurring elements should not make us forget the fundamental differences between those mythical stories and that in Genesis. When discussing the importance that Genesis gives to the location of the garden, we have already pointed out some of those differences. It is now time to look deeper into them.
As Blázquez Martínez (Blázquez Martínez 2000, p. 110) accurately states, “en el relato del Paraíso el jardín no se designa como jardín de Dios, ni como morada de los dioses. Está plantado sólo para el hombre” (“in the narrative of paradise the garden is not presented as a garden of God, nor as a dwelling of the gods. It has been grown for man only”). This element is crucial.
In contrast with the garden described in the Sumerian legend of Enki and Ninhursag or the garden of the Hesperides in Greek mythology, the Garden of Eden has been made for man to inhabit. Contrary to Islamic mythology, the garden is not appointed as a reward for the righteous (Asín Palacios 1984, pp. 192–212), but rather as the place where the first man dwells.
To this must be added that the Garden of Eden is grown by God at the beginning of time. Meant for human beings, it appears before the creation of man and is linked to it. Once again, we find here a key difference between Genesis and the mythological narratives mentioned so far.
In this context, the fact that Adam is put in Eden can be seen as the last step in the creation process. If Adam is created good and must live in harmony with the world, which is also good, it becomes necessary for him to inhabit a place where that harmony is possible, where there are plenty of fruit trees suitable for feeding upon effortlessly and without animal sacrifice or exploitation of land. That is a restricted world, different from the world that man will have to inhabit after sin. The idea that such a paradise exists is in accordance with that of a creator God who has done everything right and who has put man in an environment fit for him to reach fulfillment.
Consequently, defending the existence of paradise on earth becomes of the essence in order to properly appreciate the divine creation as narrated in Gen. 2. It also makes evident that the handling of the elements taken by Genesis from the narratives of the neighboring cultures and, above all, the narrative function assigned to paradise itself, differs substantially from other similar narratives.

5. The Search for Paradise

An interpretation such as the one proposed above is far from the ideas about meaning that prevailed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. During those periods—and even more recently—the mainstream idea was that texts represented reality. By virtue of that belief, when Alfonso X decided to write a General Estoria, he extracted from the Bible information pertaining to the first ages of man and used this source just as he used others narrating later eras (vide Sánchez-Prieto Borja et al. 2006). Likewise, Thierry de Chartres assumed that Gen. 1 provides the necessary elements to develop a scientific astronomy (vide Reinhardt and García Ruiz 2007).
To this belief must be added another one that is inherited from antiquity and still applies nowadays: any allegorical interpretation must be based upon a literal understanding of the text and, when that literal understanding meets certain conditions, an allegorical reading is rendered unnecessary.
It should come as no surprise that, despite the scarcity and imprecision of the information provided by the biblical text on how to locate paradise, throughout history, numerous biblical exegetes and many travelers and expeditioners have tried to locate it. Not long ago, Juan Gil (vide Gil 2004/2005) published an illustrative summary of those attempts.
According to Gil, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many thought that the Garden of Eden was in fact the entire Earth, or that it should be regarded as a state of mind or a symbolic place. Those beliefs, however, were held by a minority, whereas the mainstream conviction was that paradise was located in a specific place.
In all of them, the biblical fact that paradise was located eastward played a major role. So much so that, in the oldest medieval narratives, the four rivers are barely taken into account when locating the garden (Gil 2004/2005, p. 196).
In agreement with the importance given to the East in the first medieval texts that deal with the location of paradise, the Burgo de Osma Beatus depicts a map of the earth on the upper side of which Eden appears (Gómez Mayordomo 2019, p. 60). There, the four rivers are represented in the form of a cross meant to fill the world. This is a model of representation that was imitated by other works of the time.
However, as time went by, the rivers gained more and more prominence. Retrieving an idea passed down from antiquity, it was taken for granted that two of those rivers were the Tigris and the Euphrates, and it was thought that the other two had to be the Nile and the Ganges, which were deemed sacred at the time. Any objections to these four rivers having a common source were ruled out by arguing that the flood in chapters 7 and 8 of Genesis would have substantially altered the shape of the earth (Gil 2004/2005, pp. 219–20), even though prominent medieval theologians had maintained that the waters of the flood did not affect paradise.
Meanwhile, some Christian authors spread a tradition originating in Muslim cultural circles, according to which the two other rivers would be the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya (Gil 2004/2005, p. 197). These two rivers spring from the Aral Sea or the surrounding area, which, considering the present-day geography, makes a certain amount of sense. Here we have two rivers whose sources are relatively close to each other and whose courses run parallel to those of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and at a reasonable distance such that we might think of them as born from a far-off common spring. Nevertheless, no one, that we know of, ever attempted to locate said spring.
That said, if we take into consideration the Muslim proposal and/or a possible common source for the Tigris and the Euphrates, Armenia was a suitable place to seek Eden. Moreover, this hypothesis is further supported by the fact that on the Armenian border rises Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood (Gen. 8:14), which endowed Armenia with a certain biblical lineage and invited the search for paradise there. That is why, in the 13th and 14th centuries, a number of Franciscans visiting the region considered themselves as reaching the limits of the Garden of Eden. In the 15th century, the Castilian ambassador to the Sultan also mentions something along those lines.
However, when the great medieval journeys began, many of them undertaken by Franciscan friars, the idea of the ‘East’ expanded and gradually the East that Genesis speaks of in order to locate paradise shifted to the Far East. Factoring in the idea of the four rivers, a place in the Far East had to be found where four mighty water streams flowed.
Over the years, these ideas were abandoned and replaced by the belief that paradise must have been located somewhere near Old Palestine.
All the proposals so far discussed, illustrative of the approaches to the issue dominant in the Middle Ages, entail no substantial change in the interpretation of the information provided by the biblical text. However, in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, trading and geographic expeditions, as well as recurring missionary journeys, encouraged the idea that paradise was in Africa (Gil 2004/2005, pp. 200–1). Such proposals were of the utmost importance. First of all, they were somewhat symbolic interpretations, as they ignored a literal interpretation of the information provided by Genesis. In addition, this disregard for the literality of the biblical words revealed a new way of interaction with the sacred Scripture that became more and more marked as the Renaissance progressed.
At this time, some supported the idea that paradise must be located in the New World (Gil 2004/2005, pp. 207–10), citing reasons not from the biblical text, but from mythological traditions of antiquity that pertain to the characteristics of sacred rivers. The location of paradise somewhere in America has, occasionally, had a marked political intention (vide Hurtado Ruiz 2017).
Aside from this case, those who claimed that the Garden of Eden must be sought in Africa or America were ultimately joining an intellectual movement that spread all over Europe from the Renaissance onward, and can be traced to very different initiatives with the desacralization of the biblical text as their common denominator.
This desacralization was already evident in the early 18th century (Krzemien 2018, p. 54), but in an incipient stage it was announced by the debate about primeval language that took place in the 16th century. In opposition to the so-far commonly accepted idea that the primitive language had been Hebrew (vide Eskhult 2013), in the 16th century there was no shortage of opinions that proposed as the primitive language that spoken by the authors of the particular theory (vide Perea Siller 1998), which led Demonet-Launay to speak of the desacralization of Hebrew as early as the 16th century (vide Demonet-Launay 1992).
The desacralization—of the biblical texts and, more precisely, of Hebrew—responds to the paradigm shift as regards the understanding of the literal meaning of the Scripture. This literal meaning was no longer defined by the authority of the Church, and resulted from study of the texts instead. Pablo of Santa María’s criticism ofNicholas of Lyra’s hermeneutics exemplifies the consequences that, according to the Spanish author, this change entailed (vide García-Jalón 2018).
Thus, the interpreters, although unknowingly and even intending the opposite, become judges of the text. This allows them to interact with it in a new way, with the literal and symbolic interpretations easily mixed up, and the assessment of which parts of the text should take preference becomes a decision left to the reader’s discretion.
This could be what led to the proposals that paradise was in Africa or, above all, in the just-discovered America, completely disregarding the information provided in the biblical text. A line of thought followed that recognized the traits attributed to sacred rivers in the mythology about some American rivers (vide Gil 2013). As a result, the characteristics that secular literature assigns to a paradisiacal place were favored over the concision of the biblical description of the Garden of Eden, and were taken as indicators of the identification of some American places as the lost paradise.
In this way, the transformation of the intellectual mindset from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance determined the biblical interpretation: openly in terms of the location of paradise, and in an implicit manner in the reading of many other passages of the Bible.
In addition to this cartographic interpretation, supposedly founded on the literal sense of the Scripture, there were always iconographic representations, where allegorical interpretations prevailed. Obviously, these two models of exegesis—literal and allegorical—are not mutually exclusive, although each produces a different model of representation. As has just been shown, literal interpretations result in cartographic productions, whereas allegorical interpretations, more abundant in the Middle Ages (despite not starting then and never really being abandoned), generate a profusion of representations (vide Gómez Mayordomo 2019; vide item Morris and Sawyer 1992). Gómez Mayordomo (Gómez Mayordomo 2019, pp. 76–77) points out,
Durante la Edad Media, los ríos del Paraíso personificados se documentan en variedad de soportes desde principios del siglo IX hasta el siglo X, sobre todo en la Europa occidental. La iconografía que prevalece en dichas obras es la derivada del prototipo más utilizado en la Antigüedad Clásica de los dioses-río, consistente en la figura fluvial reclinada y apoyada sobre una urna, de la que mana su propio caudal. Las imágenes medievales, en cambio, representan a los ríos del Edén ya no apoyados, sino que normalmente son ellos los que portan grandes vasijas de las que se desprende el agua. Otra característica que se mantiene es que a menudo suelen aparecer en las cuatro esquinas de la composición principal, que como dijimos hacen referencia a las cuatro partes del mundo al que fluían.
(During the Middle Ages, the rivers of paradise personified are recorded in an array of media from the early 9th century up to the 10th century, mostly in western Europe. The iconography predominant in those works derives from the prototype most used in Classical Antiquity of the river-gods, consisting of the fluvial figure reclined and leaning on an urn, from which his own stream flows. The medieval images, on the other hand, represent the rivers of Eden not leaning, but typically carrying big vessels from which the water pours. Another trait that remains is that they often appear in the four corners of the main composition, in reference, as we said, to the four parts of the world towards which they flowed.)
Consequently, the use of elements from old mythology to represent biblical contents, which in the Renaissance would lead theorists to stray farther and farther away from the biblical details to locate paradise, is also hinted at in the Middle Ages, even if just in iconographic representations.
Needless to say, symbolic interpretations of the four rivers were frequent since Christian antiquity, linking them to virtues, the four gospels, the four cardinal points vivified by the baptismal waters, and so on. They are Christian adaptations of similar approaches that can already be found in primitive rabbinic writings.
There were also some who argued that anything concerning paradise must be understood symbolically only. So did Origen maintain, and Guillaume Postel agreed with him centuries later. Opposing their view, however, were both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as the vast majority of authors—including Voltaire, always prone to label his opponents as naive (Gil 2004/2005, p. 214)—who argued that symbolic interpretation could not be at the expense of the affirmation of the actual existence of the Garden of Eden.

6. Conclusions: The Impossible Places

In sum, the meaning that paradise and its location has is determined by the intellectual mindset prevailing in the textual interpretation at any given time. The initial literalism of the Middle Ages was followed by a much more relaxed interpretation as the Renaissance progressed, whereas nowadays textual analysis is performed in light of recent contributions from narrative studies.
It is precisely that capacity of the text to attract different hermeneutic perspectives throughout history that proves its literary quality. Biblical accounts of the origins of the world cannot be read as naive narratives oriented to a gullible audience, but rather as semantically dense, complex constructions that embrace a wide array of interpretations while resisting limitation to any of them.
Quite probably, the Garden of Eden is but one of those impossible places that are common in the Bible, by means of which the text plays with the reader, using highly efficient rhetorical devices that persuade them to accept without question what should in principle be more controversial, and that lead them to vehemently debate minor aspects instead. This approach avoids the controversy between literal and allegorical interpretations by ignoring the idea that all texts are referential.
If this thesis is maintained, the process of creation will not end until God grows in Eden a garden where mankind in its original state is to dwell. Thus, the challenge of finding paradise would remain forever open.


This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declare no conflict of interest.


I take the translation from the King James Version, according to the digital edition at (retrieved on 12 July 2021).
Translation taken from (retrieved on 12 July 2021).
Translation taken from the King James Version, at (retrived on 12 July 2021).


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García-Jalón, S. The Impossible Spaces: A Commentary on Gen. 2:8–15. Religions 2021, 12, 656.

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García-Jalón S. The Impossible Spaces: A Commentary on Gen. 2:8–15. Religions. 2021; 12(8):656.

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García-Jalón, Santiago. 2021. "The Impossible Spaces: A Commentary on Gen. 2:8–15" Religions 12, no. 8: 656.

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