Thursday, May 29, 2014

Hinnom Valley. Wikimedia
Growing up, I heard more than my share of sermons about hell.  While I don't have too many distinct memories about the particulars, I know that I did absorb at least one fact about the unpleasant side of the afterlife: Jesus used the smelly, sulphuric, perpetually burning garbage dump known as Gehenna to teach people what hell would be like.  I heard this so often, that it had to be true.  

Gehenna is the Hinnom Valley, which lies just outside the walls of Jerusalem and intersects the Kidron Valley south of the City of David excavations.  The name is from the Hebrew, gê-hinnom or gê-ben-hinnom    (Nehemiah 11:30, Joshua 15:8, 2 Kings 23:10//2 Chr 28:3). (NIDB)  Currently, it is called Wadi er-rababi.

I had not really thought about this for a long time, since hell doesn't really have much to do with my own research and teaching.  Recently, however, I noticed a mention of this association of Gehenna with hell on the Huffington Post.  A writer named Jon M. Sweeney wrote a post to promote his new book, Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment . Amazon doesn't have a preview, and it is not even yet available for Kindle, so my comments are solely regarding this blog post.

In his post, Hell Is a Myth -- Actually, a Bunch of Myths, he writes:
But, you see, there was little agreement among Christians, before Dante, about the nature and extent of what we call hell. Ancient Judaism and the New Testament writers had very little to say on the subject. Jesus made a few obscure, picturesque references to the afterlife, but he usually used Gehenna as his example of a place to be feared (eg. Mt. 5:29). Gehenna was a place on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem where trash, and sometimes the bodies of crucified criminals, were burned.
Well, without making a judgment about whether hell is a myth (whatever one means by a statement like that), it seems that Sweeney might be unknowingly adopting a myth of his own, that of the burning garbage heap called Gehenna.

At his blog Bible Places, Todd Bolen addressed the issue in two posts (here and here).   There, citing others such as Beasley-Murray, he writes that the assertion regarding Gehenna is not attested in any literature earlier than 1200 CE, where it was noted by Rabbi David Kimhi.  Further, there is no archaeological evidence to support the claim.  It seems that this belief regarding Gehenna is primarily propagated in preaching aids, though it is also mentioned, even in a qualified manner, in many commentaries.  

So, if Gehenna isn't the smoldering dump, then what is it?  Most likely, it was used rhetorically because it was associated with horrific sacrifices.  In Jesus and the Kingdom of God, Beasley-Murray writes,

The valley was the scene of human sacrifices, burned in the worship of Moloch (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6), which accounts for the prophecy of Jeremiah that it would be called the Valley of Slaughter under judgment of God (Jer. 7:32-33). This combination of abominable fires and divine judgment led to the association of the valley with a place of perpetual judgment (see Isa. 66:24) and later with a place of judgment by fire without any special connection to Jerusalem (see, for example, 1 Enoch 27:1ff., 54:1ff., 63:3-4, and 90:26ff).”

Isaac M. Alderman

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