The longest and most important river of SW Asia, called the Firat Nehri in Turkish, a name closely resembling the Hebrew Perathʹ and the Old Persian Ufratu. It is first mentioned at Genesis 2:14 as one of the four rivers once having had their source in Eden.
Boundary of Israel’s Assigned Territory. In God’s statement to Abraham he covenanted to give Abraham’s seed the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Ge 15:18) This promise was restated to the nation of Israel. (Ex 23:31; De 1:7, 8; 11:24; Jos 1:4) First Chronicles 5:9 states that certain descendants of Reuben in the period prior to David’s reign extended their dwelling “as far as where one enters the wilderness at the river Euphrates.” However, since the Euphrates is some 800 km (500 mi) distant, when traveling “east of Gilead” (1Ch 5:10), this may mean simply that the Reubenites extended their territory E of Gilead into the edge of the Syrian Desert, which desert continues over to the Euphrates. (RS reads, “as far as the entrance of the desert this side of the Euphrates”; JB, “to the beginning of the desert that ends at the river Euphrates.”) It thus appears that Jehovah’s promise was first fully realized during the reigns of David and Solomon when the boundaries of Israel’s dominion extended to include the Aramaean kingdom of Zobah and thus reached to the banks of the Euphrates, evidently along the section traversing northern Syria. (2Sa 8:3; 1Ki 4:21; 1Ch 18:3-8; 2Ch 9:26) Because of its preeminence, it was often designated simply as “the River.”—Jos 24:2, 15; Ps 72:8.
Sources and Course. Some 2,700 km (1,700 mi) in length, the Euphrates has two principal sources. One, known as the Kara Su, takes its rise in NE Turkey about 100 km (60 mi) from the SE corner of the Black Sea. The other, the Murat Nehri, has its headwaters originating about midway between Lake Van and Mount Ararat. Approximately halfway between the two rivers lies the valley of the Araks River, thought by some to be related to the Gihon River of Genesis 2:13. The courses of the Kara Su and the Murat Nehri run fairly parallel in a westerly direction until they unite near the city of Keban, at an elevation of about 610 m (2,000 ft) above sea level.
From this point on, the combined streams form the Euphrates proper. Having already traversed some 640 km (400 mi) of mountainous terrain from the initial headwaters of the Murat Nehri, the river now turns southward for a distance of some 480 km (300 mi), during which its flow is broken by various cataracts and rapids, until it finally emerges on the Syrian plain near the site of ancient Carchemish.
Ford at Carchemish. Carchemish guarded the principal fording place used by armies or caravans crossing from N Mesopotamia into N Syria. Carchemish was a major fortress city that later came under Assyrian control. (Isa 10:5-9) Pharaoh Nechoh took the city about 629 B.C.E., engaging Josiah’s army at Megiddo and killing that Judean king while on the way there. (2Ki 23:29; 2Ch 35:20-24) Between three and four years later (625 B.C.E.) Nebuchadnezzar’s troops crossed the Euphrates and defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish, initiating the complete decline of any domination by Egypt in Syria-Palestine.—Jer 46:2, 6, 10; 2Ki 24:7.
From Carchemish to the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates by Carchemish is only about 160 km (100 mi) from the Mediterranean Sea; however, the river thereafter makes a turn and takes a SE course, heading for the Persian Gulf, over 1,100 km (680 mi) distant. The “middle” section of the Euphrates reaches from Carchemish down to the city of Hit, in the region of bitumen pits, its flow being strengthened by the waters of the Balikh and Khabur rivers. Below Hit the river courses through the fertile Mesopotamian plain, and some 80 km (50 mi) below Hit, in the neighborhood of Baghdad, it draws within 40 km (25 mi) of the Tigris River. In this lower section of the Euphrates, the river dissipates itself in the extensive marshes and in the ruined canals, and its flow becomes sluggish.
The Euphrates and the Tigris finally unite near Basra, and from this junction to the Persian Gulf the stream is known as the Shatt-al-Arab. According to Pliny and other ancient historians, the Euphrates originally had its outlet into the sea separate from that of the Tigris. (Natural History, VI, XXVI, 128-131) It is generally believed that the silt deposited by the two rivers has built up the delta region at the head of the Persian Gulf and that the original coastline extended much farther N, perhaps reaching as far as the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldeans, Abraham’s early home.
The Euphrates’ waters reach their lowest point in September and then steadily rise until May, when their normal crest is reached. Because of the melting snows, spring floods occur. The annual overflowing of both the Euphrates and the Tigris doubtless is the basis for Isaiah’s description of Babylonia as “the wilderness of the sea.” (Isa 21:1, 2) This flooding was controlled in ancient times by dikes and sluices that diverted the waters into irrigation canals and into catch basins. These canals formed an irrigation network between the Euphrates and the Tigris that ensured productiveness for most of lower Babylonia. Over the centuries the canals generally have become blocked up and clogged, with resultant agricultural deterioration; the accumulation of salts in the soil because of the irrigation waters also contributed to the gradual ruin of the once-fertile valley.
Major Cities. Along the Euphrates’ banks lay many ancient cities, including Ur, Erech, Kish, and Babylon. The river’s course has apparently shifted somewhat to the W so that most of the ancient sites now lie several miles to the E of it.
The great city of Babylon was originally built so that it straddled the Euphrates, and the river’s waters were used to form a broad deep moat encircling the city and also to form a network of canals within the city walls. At the time of Babylon’s fall in 539 B.C.E., Cyrus diverted the waters of the Euphrates so that his troops could march through the riverbed into the unsuspecting city. Thus, the waters of the Euphrates were ‘dried up.’ (Isa 44:27, 28; 45:1) In symbol, the same thing is prophesied to result from the outpouring of the sixth angel’s “bowl” on “the great river Euphrates,” as described at Revelation 16:12. The following chapter describes the destruction of symbolic “Babylon the Great,” which is said to ‘sit on many waters,’ these representing “peoples and crowds and nations and tongues.”—Re 17:1, 5, 15-18.
A Frontier; Visited by Jeremiah. As the Euphrates River served as the northern frontier of the disputed region of Palestine and Syria, over which Egypt and Babylon fought, so in the time of the Persian Empire it served to divide the East from the West, as indicated by the expression “beyond the River.” (Ezr 4:10, 11; 5:3; 6:6; Ne 2:7) In time the Euphrates also formed the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire.
The text at Jeremiah 13:1-7 has been the subject of some discussion inasmuch as a trip by Jeremiah from Jerusalem to the river Euphrates, even at its nearest point some distance S of Carchemish, would represent a trip of over 500 km (300 mi) each way, and the text indicates that he possibly made the trip twice (though the intervening time is not stated). A translation by the Jewish Publication Society here simply transliterates the Hebrew word as “Perath,” and some suggest that the reference is not to the Euphrates but to the town of Parah (Jos 18:23), near Anathoth, a few miles from Jerusalem. However, the repetition of the name Perathʹ (Euphrates) four times in the account evidently shows that the place named had a significant relation to the prophetic picture being enacted, whereas the obscure village of Parah would hardly seem to give particular significance to the event. Though some point out that the Hebrew word na·harʹ (river) is not used in connection with Perathʹ in this text, it may be noted that it is likewise lacking at Jeremiah 51:63, yet the reference there obviously is to the Euphrates River. Hence, there seems to be no good reason for assuming that the account at Jeremiah 13:1-7 refers to anything other than the Euphrates River.
It is quite possible that Jeremiah’s hiding of the belt near the river took place at least in the general region of the crossing of the Euphrates by the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar in their march that eventually led to the desolation of Judah and Jerusalem. At any rate, the trip, or possibly two trips, to the Euphrates by Jeremiah certainly should have given impressive weight to the warning message this action was to convey to the spiritually corrupt people of the kingdom of Judah.—Compare Jer 2:18, 19.