“Out of Eden”
January 19, 2014 - Second Sunday after Epiphany
I went to
college in the Garden of Eden. Ask Beth and she will tell you I am firmly
convinced that the original paradise was located squarely in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, California. There are few places on earth with more natural beauty or a more
perfect climate. So the Garden had to be there.
I’m kidding of course,
but some people imagine they can read our text here in Genesis, do a little
geography and determine where Eden was located, in the area of the Persian Gulf
or possibly in Armenia. The truth is that there is no way now to make literal
geography out of the rivers mentioned in verses 10 to 14.
What we do see here is
the first appearance of the River of God in the Bible. As I said last week,
there is a waterway which courses throughout God’s Word, springing up now and
then as the emblem and vehicle of God’s gifts of life and His Spirit. It
appears first here in Genesis, arising in the Garden of Eden, then, like a stream
running mostly underground, it comes to the surface here and there throughout
the Scriptures. You see it in Numbers, in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Ezekiel, in
John, and finally in the book of the Revelation.
Over twenty years ago
Beth and I saw the last film shown in Lincoln, Nebraska’s Cooper Theatre before it closed. That movie was “A River Runs Through It,” the beautiful film Robert
Redford directed based on Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novel by the same
title. It’s the story of two sons of a Presbyterian minister growing up
together in a small town in rural Montana.
story runs the Big Blackfoot River, where the two sons and their father
practice the art of fly-fishing. In the movie script the aging Reverend Maclean
says that before and beneath the rocks of their river “are the words of God.”
In the book we learn that the old man meant the Word of God which John tells us
was in the beginning, which created the world. So he tells his son Norman that
“if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the
Here in Genesis we can
hear God’s Word running beneath the first River of the earth, the River that
had its source in paradise as that stream sprang up by God’s command to water
the ground with fresh water in verse 6. We see in that verse and in verse 10
that the River rose and flowed out to water the Garden of Eden. It is the
source of nourishment for everything that grows there, for every tree,
including in verse 9, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good
There is much more to
say about those trees and their significance. But we’re focused for the moment
on the River. At the beginning the River’s water, coming from God, was where
life flowed, was how God nourished and gave life, even to the tree of life.
Verse 10 tells that
the River flowed out of Eden, but that word to “flow” has the special nuance of
coming from the source, of a beginning. The River does not just flow through Eden. It arises there. It begins there in the paradise which God created as humanity’s
converge. The forks or tributaries of rivers like our Willamette come from
different directions, from different sources and run together until they are
one large stream running down to the ocean. But the River of Eden branches.
Verse 10 says it divides into four branches. Then we hear the names of those
four great rivers.
It was an image shared
by more than one people in ancient times, a great river branching into four. China and India also had that picture in their writings, maybe because the Brahmaputra River flows across Tibet and India and China and historically has had various branches and has
two main ones now. The Nile River also has two branches in the Nile Delta but
an ancient historian says that it once had as many as seven branches.
The branches of the River of Eden are named in verses 11 to 14, the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. You may recognize those last two as the great rivers of the Fertile Crescent,
the waters which gave Mesopotamia its name, “the land between the rivers.”
Today this is mostly Iraq, northeast Syria, and smalls bits of southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran and Kuwait. The Tigris and Euphrates made possible the rise of the
great civilizations of Sumer and Assyria and Babylon and Persia. They are still hugely important water sources for modern nations.
There is no way to
identify and connect the Pishon and the Gihon with any modern or even historic
rivers. “Pishon” is an onomatopoeia which means “Gusher.” The land of Havilah,
“where there is gold” and bdellium and onyx, has a number of claimants
including India, which would make the river the Ganges. Another possibility is
the Indus River in Pakistan. There is no way to know.
The land of Cush through which the Gihon, which might mean something like “Bubbler,” flows is
usually identified as northern Africa, Ethiopia, so that would make its river
the Nile. It’s interesting that modern genetics would place the origins of the
human race in Africa.
Of course there is no
way all those rivers have a single source in modern geography. Which is one
reason it is silly to try and actually locate the site of Eden. Genesis 3:24 makes it clear that the Garden is cut off from human access, and is not a
place to which anyone may simply travel anymore. But I said last week that
Genesis is not a science textbook and that includes the science of geography.
What these verses mean
to teach us is that God is the source of everything, of all that is good and
life-giving in our world. He, and only He, is the Creator. That’s why verse 7
tells us that it is God who breathed life into the first human being and verses
6 and 10 tell us that God is the one who caused fresh water to spring up and
flow across the earth.
Science will tell you
that the conditions for life on earth are an incredibly slim chance. If the
force of gravity had been only a tiny bit more or less, if protons or neutrons
had just a minutely different mass, the elements which sustain life, including
water, could not have formed. The Christian faith is not that the science is
wrong, but that there is a creative Power and Mind behind the chances, insuring
that there would be breath in our lungs and water in our rivers. That Power and
Intelligence is God.
The Bible starts then
with the presupposition that everything that is comes from God and begins good.
Yet here now in Genesis 2 we also see that God makes room for and includes our
own choices in His creation. We see those two trees in verse 9. They represent
the basic branches of the river which is our own human will. Just below our
text, in verses 16 and 17 God offered up every possibility except one to our
own decision. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” except one.
It’s not a narrow, restrictive command. It’s full of choice and joy and
And so is the River
which flows out of the Garden. It branches in four directions. Some ancient
Bible readers thought it branched in the four directions of the compass, thus
in every direction. God sent His water, His blessing into the whole earth. As
He said in Genesis 1:28, He wanted us to multiply, to fill the earth, to
explore and enjoy all its multitude of possibilities. So life-giving water goes
out in all directions.
Psalm 36:7-9 expresses the joy God wants for us in the waters of His River:
How precious is your
steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
(Remember the wings of the
Spirit hovering over the waters last week?)
They feast on the
abundance of your house
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.
God called forth the
waters and spoke the Word which made His light shine on them. And then He gave
them to you and me and everyone to enjoy. But as Genesis 3 goes on to tell, we made a mess of it. We were free to go in every direction
except one, the direction of rebellion against God. But that last, wrong
direction is just where we went. We still go there. We are sinners. We are cast
out of the Garden and Eden is lost.
Yet the River flowed out
of Eden and divided. Here we are, out of Eden, and yet the River still
comes to us. Despite our rebellion and sin God’s River of life still flows into
our world. We may leave God, but God does not leave us.
Every time the earth
wakes up in spring, life is flowing from God’s river into His creation. Every
time a baby is born, life is flowing from God into us. Every foggy morning here
when vapor rises from the earth and then settles again upon the ground,
clearing away so the sun can shine, God is still blessing us with His presence.
We can turn rivers
now. We almost always could. From the very beginning human beings built dams
and dug channels, trying to make water flow where they wanted it to go. In the
process we’ve made a lot of messes, ruined the land, killed birds and fish and
animals, whole ecosystems wrecked by our choices. And we do the same in our own
lives when we try to force God’s good gifts into choices and channels which are
God’s River, God’s
love and blessing, is flowing to us, but we can cut ourselves off from it by
the sins we commit. When we lived in Nebraska, we sometimes drove an hour or so
from Lincoln to the airport in Omaha. Along that route we would see a strange
sign by the road. We were driving from one location in Nebraska to another
location in Nebraska, but a few miles before we got to the airport we would see
a sign that read, “Welcome to Iowa.” For a long time I didn’t think much about
Then one day I looked
at a map of eastern Nebraska and realized that there was actually a little
piece of Iowa on the west side of the border river, the Missouri. When I asked about it I learned that the Missouri used to make a bend up and
around the town of Carter Lake, putting it on the Iowa side of the river. But
then people came along and “fixed” the river, smoothed it out so the bend was
eliminated and that little town was left across the river from the rest of Iowa. And the highway from Lincoln passes through it on the way to Eppley Field in Omaha.
That’s how you and I
can twist God’s River of love flowing to us. We think we’re making things
smoother, better for ourselves by going around God’s will for us, choosing the
ways we want to live instead of the ways He asks of us. But in the end we land
on the far side of His River, cut off by our own will from the good He has for
You and I make those
sorts of choices to cut ourselves off from the River of God whenever we think
it is better to get revenge rather than forgive, whenever we enjoy too much or
in the wrong way the pleasures of drink or sex or food rather than accept the
limits God places on those gifts, whenever we fill our lives with events and
activities which feel important to us but which leave us no time for prayer or
Scripture or worship. It might feel like ignoring what God wants makes life
simpler, but in the end we are cut off from real life.
When we find ourselves
there, lost and alone, cut off from God by our own choices, that then is the
time to remember that God’s River is still flowing in all directions. The River
did not just stop there in Eden, so that when our sin forced us out of the
Garden, all the blessings of the River were lost. No, it still flowed out of
Eden. The grace and love and life of God still flows out to meet us in
our sinful little cutoff places, wherever we are.
The River of God now flows to us in Jesus Christ. In our Gospel lesson, we heard John the Baptist
announce to his own disciples that the Lamb of God had come. He came to take
away the sin of the world. He came to forgive us and end our separation from
God so that once again we could drink from the River of God’s delights and
enjoy all the abundance of His goodness.
That branching River
which flows out of Eden is a sign that God can find you, God can reach you, God
can send you new life wherever you are. Even if you have sinned over and over,
even if you cannot forgive yourself, even if your hurt and pain and sadness
feel like the river you will drown in, the River of God is reaching toward you,
flowing in your direction. That River flows through the Lamb of God, through
Jesus who gave His life to take away your sins and send God’s life flowing into
Many of you know how
much I enjoy being on a river to fish. It’s also good to just be on a river to
renew and refresh life and spirit. My first choice for a picnic with my family
would be along a river. Over the years we’ve sat and ate and played together by
the Middle Fork of the Willamette at Jasper Park or up at Ben and Kay Doris on
the McKenzie. With our daughters and their friends, we’ve stood above the huge
falls on Salt Creek, and we’ve explored with old friends the various small
waterfalls on the North Umpqua. Those have been times of refreshing, of new
life, of peace and grace, away from all the worries and concerns of house and
school and work.
The message here in Genesis 2 this morning is that there is a River available to refresh and renew and bring us
peace at any time. God’s love is flowing out to you in Jesus. All you need to
do is welcome that River, come alongside it, listen to the words which flow
beneath it, assuring you that God loves you, that Jesus gave His life for you,
that you can be forgiven, can be redeemed, can be saved forever.
And that River of God is flowing in every direction. If there is someone you are worried
about, someone you love or know who seems cut off from God, even cut off from
life, the River of God is flowing to him or to her through the Lamb of God. She
may not know it yet. He may not feel it now. But it is reaching him. It is
If you’ve received an
e-mail from me, you’ve probably read the verse from Psalm 65 that I want to leave you with. Verse 9 of that Psalm is translated in various
ways, but the reading which seems most accurate to me and which has spoken
often to my soul has this little phrase in the middle, “the river of God is full of water.”
You or I may be empty.
We may be lost. But the water of Eden, the River of God, comes gushing and bubbling
forth to find us, to fill us. As John told his disciples, Jesus came to bring
the River to us, to bring a baptism of God’s Holy Spirit who fills us and
refreshes us. May that River flow fresh and strong into your heart and life
right now. The River of God is full of water.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj