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.