Note: Tanach quotes are from the Judaica press Tanach.New Testament quotes from the Bible in this article are from the King James Version.
Gehenna is a word tracing to Greek, ultimately from Hebrew Gai-Ben-Hinnom meaning Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and is still called Gai Ben Hinnom in Modern Hebrew(גיא בן הינום), though this is sometimes shortened to Gai-Hinnom in rabbinical texts. An alternate way to translate this word is Gehinnom. Originally it referred to a garbage dump in a deep narrow valley right outside the walls of outside Jerusalem (in modern-day Israel) where fires were kept burning to consume the refuse and keep down the stench. It is also the location where bodies of executed criminals, or individuals denied a proper burial, would be dumped.
There are stories of fires that were kept burning via the adding of brimstone (sulfur). Light a match and one knows what sulfur dioxide smells like. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible Volume I, explains,
- “It became the common lay-stall [garbage dump] of the city, where the dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals, and every other kind of filth was cast.”
The dump was full of rotting garbage which sent up a stench that could be smelled for miles.
Old Testament observations
It is mentioned in the Old Testament several places, notably 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6; 32:35. We quote Jeremiah, 19:2-6, which speaks of the Jews worshipping pagan idols and committing abominations:
"19:2. And you shall go out to the Ben-Hinnom Valley which is at the entrance of the Harsith Gate, and you shall call there the words that I will speak to you. 19:3. And you shall say; Hearken to the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; so said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel; Behold I am bringing evil upon this place, which whoever hears, his ears will tingle. 19:4. Because they forsook Me and they estranged this place and burnt incense therein to other gods, which they had not known, they, their forefathers, and the kings of Judah, and they filled this place with the blood of innocent people. 19:5. And they built the high places of Baal to burn their children with fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command, neither did I speak nor did it enter My mind. 19:6. Therefore, behold days are coming, says the Lord, when this place will no longer be called Topheth or Ben-Hinnom Valley, but the Valley of Slaughter."
Ancient Jews once sacrificed their children to pagan idols in the fires in Gehenna, and this was an abomination; in 2 Kings, 23:10, King Josiah forbade the sacrificing of children to Moloch at Gehenna (though Baal is not mentioned in this particular verse). Rashi claims that the Topheth was the Molech. Since priests would bang on drums so that the father would not hear the groans of the child when he would be burned by the hands of the pagan image, Molech, they called it Topheth.
New Testament observations and matters of translation
It is often mentioned in the New Testament of the Christian Bible as the place of condemnation of unrepentant sinners.
In the Book of Matthew, 23:33, Jesus observes,
- "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
Jesus used the word gehenna, not hell, and his audience understood quite well that gehenna meant a place of condemnation, where Jews had previously cast aside the worship of the true God to defile themselves by committing abominations. Human garbage, sinners, would be consumed and destroyed forever.
We note, the King James Bible (and other translations as well) speak of “hellfire” and of being “cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched." The original Greek scriptures of the New Testament actually used the word gehenna, which tended to become hell in English translation.
The word gehenna (Gehennem) also occurs in the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, as a place of torment for sinners.
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