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.
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”.