MonthJuly 2015

A Trip to Hell

I’ve been meaning to go to Hell for a while. Especially since I’ve been advised to do so on a number of occasions over the years. So yesterday I did. And Jenny sportingly came with me.

Here it is.


This is the Hinnom Valley. It runs round the south of Jerusalem’s Old City. In the Hebrew Bible it has the name “Ge Ben-Hinnom” (Valley of Ben Hinnom) which becomes “Gehenna” in the Greek of the New Testament, by way of the Aramaic “Gehinnam”. Most English translations of the bible render “Gehenna” as “Hell”.
But it doesn’t look all that bad, does it? In the words of an AC/DC song which I once endured being played at a funeral service I conducted, it seems that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”.

At least, not this one. Not these days.

The explanation which is traditionally offered for this valley as the source of the imagery of Hell is that it was Jerusalem’s rubbish dump, and a fire burned perpetually in it. The inhabitants of the city, so the explanation goes, constantly fed the fire with their trash, and even with the bodies of their dead. I’ve heard this claimed by various preachers, and you find it repeated in the commentaries.1

But along with a lot of things we simply repeat without checking (e.g. that Jerusalem had a gate called the “needle”, and that the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies with a rope tied around him) the city dump tradition turns out to be very late in its origin, and therefore very unreliable.

Its earliest appearance, as noted by Day (1989) and others, is in Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13. Writing in around 1200AD, he describes Gehenna as “a despised place where they cast filth and corpses, and there was perpetually a fire for the burning of the filth and the bones of the corpses. On account of this the judgement place of the wicked is called Gehenna”.

This is, in fact, quite unlikely for two reasons. First, cremation has never been the way that Jerusalem has dealt with its dead (the only cremated human remains found in Jerusalem so far are Roman, see Barkay, 1994:91). And second, even if the bit about the corpses is an exaggeration, there’s no evidence (either archaeological or literary) that the Hinnom Valley was used as the city dump. Perhaps such evidence will one day come to light, but the recent discovery (Reich & Shukron, 2003) of an extensive city dump on the eastern slope of the City of David (i.e. not in the Hinnom Valley) would tend to make this seem less likely.

I should note that it’s possible there was a different kind of dumping going on in the Hinnom Valley in Late Second Temple times, but that’s a different story, and it’s not related to perpetually burning fires.

The real origin of the association between this valley and Hell is much more disturbing. I would personally be only moderately disconcerted by a municipal waste disposal facility as the root idea. But what we really have to face up to here is something much worse – an horrific ancient practice of child immolation by fire.

Listen to the prophet Jeremiah reporting God’s anger at the actions of the people of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 32:35):

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.

In this beautiful, sunlit valley, something truly dreadful used to happen.
So, who is this Molech character? I’m interested in him because it’s quite possible that he is mentioned in Zephaniah 1:5. I argued against this in my Master’s dissertation some years back, but now I’m starting to disagree with myself.

For most of the history of reading the bible, it has been assumed that Molech is some sort of god. Whose god exactly is debated. Is he a foreign import, or was he already loafing around in the Hinnom Valley, as it were, before the founding of Judahite Jerusalem? There doesn’t seem to be enough concrete evidence to allow a firm conclusion.

Whatever Molech’s personal history, that he required the sacrifice of children, and that such a thing actually appears to have been done in this valley for his benefit is sufficient to qualify Ge Ben-Hinnom as the starting point for ideas about hell. It’s hard to think of many things which are more horrific.

When you add to this the observation that the valley’s lowest point is also the lowest point of the city of Jerusalem, you can start to see how it might be seen as a natural contrast to the dwelling place of God on the heights of Zion.

From the depths of the “hell” of the Ben Hinnom Valley, Jenny and I hiked back up into the Old City, where, because pilgrims are scarce in this city at the moment, we were able to enter the tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulchre (I have written about the significance of this church here), and from there to visit the Cenacle, with its strong associations not so much with the Last Supper as is popularly claimed, but with the gathering of the first disciples at Pentecost.

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View of the inner depths within the Edicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre


It’s only now on reflection that I realize that, without planning it, we walked the contours of the gospel message.




1 I briefly consulted a few commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel. I found the standard view stated in F D Bruner (1987); H B Green (1975); R H Gundry (1986); D Hill (1972); J F O’Grady (2007). L Morris (1992 : 115 n92) claims that there is “some evidence” for the city dump theory and references TDNT I.657-68. This turns out to be an article by J Jeremias who actually doesn’t seem to mention the tradition at all. Davies & Allison (1988 : 515) say that “The standard view … is without ancient support although it could be correct”.

Dirt Sifting, Pesher Habbakuk, Babel

Yesterday I crashed a conference. It’s being organized by the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel (its aims are set out here) and throughout the week it is hosting a varied and interesting range of speakers. The conference is taking place at the Hotel Yehuda in South-West Jerusalem, which is a bit tricky to get to by bus from where I’m staying, so I went on my bike. The route was most enjoyable – apart from the hills. It took me along the new cycle trail which runs along next to the train line.

First up was Professor Gabriel Barkay who directs the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

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Brief history for those who are interested: the Haram ash-Sherif (Arabic for “Noble Sanctuary”), or Har HaBayit (Hebrew for “Hill of the House”, or “Temple Mount”) is managed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. The history and the politics are complicated, but this is the status quo.  In 1999-2000 the Waqf conducted a large scale construction project on the site without archaeological supervision. The purpose was to dig out an entrance to the so-called Solomon’s Stables, an ancient subterranean structure at the south-eastern corner of the site, which has been converted into a mosque which can accommodate 15,000 worshippers. The dirt which was dug out (tons of it) was dumped – some near the ancient town of Bethany, but most in the Kidron Valley. Larger items were picked out before the dirt was moved, and if you walk along the eastern side of the Temple Mount platform today, you can see piles of stuff, including ashlars, bits of columns, capitals etc. It’s a terrible mess. In my five visits there over the last couple of months I’ve discovered that if you take too much interest in this stuff, you very quickly get shooed away.

Rubble on the Temple Mount

Rubble on the Temple Mount

The purpose of the Temple Mount Sifting Project is to go through all of the dirt which was dumped in the Kidron Valley, sieve by sieve, to see what’s in there. Professor Barkay gave us a summary of the story and of the finds so far.

Most interesting to me is that a lot of Byzantine material has been found. The usual story told is that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70, the Temple Mount was abandoned – left to become a wasteland. The Christians, it is said, in the 4th-7th centuries, had no interest in the site, preferring to leave it desolate as evidence of God’s judgement on the place. The finds, however, suggest that a different story should be told. There are plenty of Byzantine materials among them – coins, bits of buildings, floor tiles, pendants, even dice.

Second up was Professor Lawrence Schiffman of New York University who gave us an introduction to Pesher Exegesis in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In order to do this he took us through Pesher Habakkuk, explaining what the writer was doing with Habakkuk’s prophecy, and drawing some parallels and contrasts with some of the treatment of OT texts in the Gospels.

Lastly I went to a seminar on the Hebrew Text of Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel, led by Rev Aart Brons. What was particularly amusing about this was that among the 20 or so participants at least 7 different first languages were spoken. The point of verses 6 and 7 of the text seems to be that speaking different languages makes it more difficult to cooperate. We tried.

There was a bit too much participation in small groups to take good notes in the last session!

There was a bit too much participation in small groups to take good notes in the last session!

O Little Town

Things I’m not going to talk about until I get home. Some photos.

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