And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
In these verses the author shares the geographical knowledge of the time in which he wrote this passage. Only the last two rivers are known: the Tigris and the Euphrates that bathed the Mesopotamia, the cradle of the Babylonian empire that had destroyed and deported the Jews in 587 BC.
The name of the second, however, is shrouded in mystery, although Ethiopia (heb. Kush) should be the ancient Nubia, in Egypt. The first river’s name, instead, is a real mystery. Where is this “land of Havilah”? Moreover, in this case the author speaks a little more fully about the place where the Pison flows. In this country there was gold, bdellium and the onyx stone. We know from the Bible that “Havilah” is a region of Arabia (e.g. Gen 10:29; 25:18). Virtually useless to try to further identify the location where the Pison flows.
Gold, the resin (the aromatic resin) and onyx stone (transparent and white) are typical of the so-called “golden age” – ie the world’s origin – when the man lived in total communion with God. We have here some of the language which will be widely developed by the Jewish apocalyptic, as it is best reflected in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev 21).
These early chapters of Genesis should be read in depth, beyond the surface, to find the message that the authors wanted to give us. Certainly, they knew very well what these geographical names referred, but this is not what matters most. The important thing is that from the residence of God – the Eden’s Garden – came out the water that irrigated all the land then known. And Eden’s Garden was at the center of this providential plan of God, because found himself “halfway” between the Region of Eden and all countries here mentioned. This topographical details are typical of the Golden Age, when God provided everything men needed, because in that mythical time men and women trusted God.