River Euphrates by Shayna Sheinfeld

The River Euphrates serves both geographical and metaphorical roles in the biblical and noncanonical texts.

What is the geographical role that the River Euphrates plays in the Hebrew Bible?

Located in modern day Iraq and extending through Syria and Turkey, the Euphrates River is one of the two major rivers of the fertile crescent in ancient Mesopotamia. In the biblical text, it is first mentioned as one of four rivers that issues forth from the garden of Eden (Gen 2:14) and appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, noncanonical literature, and the Christian Testament.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Euphrates is often seen as a geographic marker that delineates belonging and exclusion. For instance, in Gen 15:18 God makes a covenantal promise of land with Abraham, mapped out with the River Euphrates as its eastern border; this boundary is reiterated in subsequent references (e.g., Josh 1:4). For Solomon, the Euphrates is not just the promised border, but the actual geopolitical boundary of his kingdom (1Kgs 4:21-24). As a way to rejoin his tribe and escape his uncle, Jacob crosses over the Euphrates to bring his new family to his parents and brother (Gen 31:21). After the Babylonian exile, the Euphrates is used as a literary border to indicate the separation of the exiles from their homeland. In the biblical material, the Euphrates is sometimes referred to simply as “the River” (e.g., Josh 24:3, Ezra 4:10).

How does the Euphrates play a metaphorical role in ancient texts?

In addition to a geographic boundary, the Euphrates can serve a metaphorical purpose in ancient texts. This is not an unusual occurrence. Geography scholars such as Edward Soja highlight that geography is not a neutral or objective category; it represents the goals and perceptions of its producers, whether modern or ancient. For example, in Isa 27, God promises that in the future, Israel will be gathered from the “Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt.” Israel here means those Israelites lost in Egypt as well as the tribes dispersed by the eighth century BCE Assyrian invasion. In this example, the Euphrates functions as both a geographic boundary and as a temporal marker—that is, as a way to reach back in time and reclaim the “lost” Israelites (compare Mic 7:12). Ezek 40-48 offers an idealized remapping of ancient Israel, using natural features of the land like the Euphrates but reimagining them collectively into a future, utopian ideal.

Just as the Euphrates serves as a temporal marker in the prophetic literature, the river also serves as a boundary in time signifying the eschaton in some first century CE apocalypses. In John’s Apocalypse, four angels are bound in the Euphrates, and when the end is near, they will be released (Rev 9:14). In Rev 16:12 another angel will dry up the river so “the way of the kings of the east might be prepared” (Rev 16:12). The water is also stopped in 4 Ezra 13.39–47, when, at the eschaton, the lost tribes of Israel who are hidden beyond the Euphrates will return to the land of Israel. In 2 Bar 77, the lost tribes live across the Euphrates until the end times. Baruch sends letters that encourage torah observance in the face of the imminent eschaton, using regular messengers for Jews in Babylon but using an eagle for the Jews beyond the Euphrates. The fantastical use of an eagle emphasizes the temporal boundary that the eagle must cross in order to reach the long-lost tribes.

While always representative as a marker of the physical river, the Euphrates also serves as a boundary of future times, represented as an idealized or a temporal border.

Shayna Sheinfeld, "River Euphrates", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/places/related-articles/river-euphrates



Shayna Sheinfeld
Honorary Research Fellow , Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (The University of Sheffield).

Shayna Sheinfeld is Honorary Research Fellow at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (The University of Sheffield). Her current research projects include a textbook on women in ancient Judaism and Christianity and a monograph on the diversity of Jewish leadership in the first three centuries CE.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

the final event in the divine plan; the end of the world.

Together with the Tigris, the Euphrates is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The crescent-shaped region stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Its fertile land made agriculture easy, making it the location of many early human developments.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Of or related to textual materials that are not part of the accepted biblical canon.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 2:14

14The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Gen 15:18

18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrat ... View more

Josh 1:4

4 From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your t ... View more

1Kgs 4:21-24

21  Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served ... View more

Gen 31:21

21 So he fled with all that he had; starting out he crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.

Josh 24:3

3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac;

Ezra 4:10

10and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River w ... View more

Isa 27

27 On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill th ... View more

Mic 7:12

In that day they will come to you
    from Assyria to Egypt,
and from Egypt to the River,
    from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain.

Ezek 40-48

The Vision of the New Temple
1In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after t ... View more

Rev 9:14

14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”

Rev 16:12

12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east.

Rev 16:12

12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east.

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