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In Bereishit 2:10, scripture mentions the following:

10: And a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it separated and became four heads.

11: The name of one is Pishon; that is the one that encompasses all the land of Havilah, where there is gold.

12: And the gold of that land is good; there is the crystal and the onyx stone.

13: And the name of the second river is Gihon; that is the one that encompasses all the land of Cush.

14: And the name of the third river is Tigris; that is the one that flows to the east of Assyria, and the fourth river that is the Euphrates.

It doesn't seem to be really adding anything useful--and completely out of context--to the previous topic, and the following topic. Why do we need to know about the four rivers?

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  • see the book Waters of Eden by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan for a fascinating discussion of this.
    – ray
    Oct 1, 2013 at 18:31
  • @ray, care to offer a summary or an insight as an answer?
    – Ani Yodea
    Oct 1, 2013 at 20:06
  • read it a long time ago. it's quite deep. well worth reading the entire book.
    – ray
    Oct 1, 2013 at 20:19

3 Answers 3

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The Malbim in his commentary to Bereishis 2:10 and following pesukim seems to adress this question. He says that history has proven that mankind tended to dwell on riverbanks (hence the account of Adam when cast out of Eden would fit later). And also the description of the rivers would indicate that God prepared good conditions for Man to disperse over various places each one of them different and influencing its people accordingly. The description of the four rivers allegorize this by saying some traits that mankind would be divided:

1) Pishon represents the ones who strive after enrichment and treasures under the sky. The posuk 11 exempifies this by mentioning the land of Havilah, "where there is gold".

2) Guihón, alludes to the ones who strive after the satisfaction of sexual desire, that's why Ezekiel 23:20 describes the inhabitants of the land of Kush as the ones "whose phallus were like those of donkeys".

3) Tigris (Hidékel) represent the ones who strive after power and provoke war. The Kings of Ashur are exemples of that.

4) and the last one, the Euphrates (connected to eretz yisroel, Shevuot 47b) represents the uniqunesse of those who raise great sages.

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Slightly similar to the Malbim brought in @RenatoGrun's answer, Rabbi Philip Biberfeld wrote in "Universal Jewish History", vol. 2, pg. 184-185:

"There has been much guesswork about the meaning of these rivers and their probable sites. The tradition identifies them with the Indus, the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. It is, of course, hard to conceive how these well-known rivers can be visualized as branching out from the same original source. Besides, the parts into which a river is divided can hardly be called "heads" or "beginnings". They rather would be "arms" or "branches".

Not much attention has been paid, however, to the fact that the description of the rivers is given in connection with the "Tree of Knowledge." It should naturally have preceded in the portrayal of the vegetation of the trees. Instead, the reference to the rivers interrupts the story of the "Tree of Knowledge" to which the narrative afterwards returns. It seems therefore, that what is actually described is not the physical appearance of the rivers but the "beginnings" of human civilizations which, originating from one common source, developed along the banks of the four great rivers. This, indeed, is an exact portrayal of what actually happened in early human history. The first great civilizations came into existence in the fertile valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Indus systems. Though differing from one another in some details, all these civilizations exhibit certain common features.

The Biblical outline is even more remarkable when one considers that the conditions to which it refers had already ceased to exist by the end of the third millennium. At that time Indian civilization seems to have been completely extinguished to be rediscovered only in our time. In Egypt and Mesopotamia eras of prosperity were succeeded by Dark Ages. These fundamental changes reflect the aftermath of the Flood which took place at this time."

There has been great discussion about the difference between the creation of Man in chapter 1 and the creation of Man in chapter 2. One of the most well-known explanations is that chapter 1 describes things in general while chapter two gets into the details. These chapter distinctions are, of course, a Christian invention. It seems that according to Rabbi Biberfeld, it would make more sense to include within the generalized description of the early days of Man and mankind the first 14 verses of chapter 2. The verses about the Tree of Knowledge and the rivers come to tell us that once Man became knowledgeable enough, he was able to set out into the world and start creating the great civilizations he is known for.

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1) I heard the following explanation (which may be the Waters of Eden referenced above):

Impurity comes from death. Death is a post-Garden of Eden reality. The waters of the world are sourced back to the Garden of Eden. Therefore immersing in them accomplishes returning one's self to the Garden of Eden, where there is no such thing as death. Therefore, a mikvah has the ability to remove impurity (which comes from death) because it is water from the Garden of Eden.

It is important to know that it is part of the geography of Gan Eden, and that it departs from there. The reason water has the quality that it has is because it comes from Gan Eden. Additionally, this is the only place that discusses the layout of Gan Eden, so it belongs specifically here.

2) In the book (novel) With All My Heart With All My Soul by (pseudonym) B.D. Daehu, he says an explanation that I don't fully appreciate. He explains an approach very similar to that of Lonely Man of Faith about the two accounts of creation of Adam, and concludes with a comment about the rivers being in the second section as the calm, quiet flow of the rivers speaks to the solitary state of man, which is the theme of the second account of Man's creation in his approach.

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  • @SethJ edited... Jan 22, 2014 at 1:18
  • What's with the second section? You disagree with an idea sourced in a novel, and yet you make it part of your answer?
    – Seth J
    Jan 22, 2014 at 6:33
  • (I appreciate your edit to the first section.)
    – Seth J
    Jan 22, 2014 at 6:33
  • @SethJ I did not say I disagree, I just said I don't fully appreciate it. The author is a distinguished and well known Rabbi, despite it being a novel, which is why I give it credence. I just don't think he fully explains the symbolism. Jan 22, 2014 at 18:51
  • @SethJ And should I assume the downvote is not yours then, or was it kept because of the novel? Jan 22, 2014 at 18:52

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