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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
First, Gehenna was a literal place in Jewish history as far back as the time of Joshua:
“Then the boundary goes up by THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM (Gehenna) at the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem); and the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against THE VALLEY OF HINNOM, on the west, at the northern end of the valley of Rephaim.” (Joshua 15:8)
This place became the site of Judah’s terrible history of child sacrifice.
“And [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 28:3)
“He made his son pass through fire in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)
Gehenna, the valley of the son of Hinnom, was the cultic location where the Canaanites offered children as sacrifices to the god Moloch. At some point it became known as Topheth for the hearth where the child was placed: the Hebrew term has parallels in both Ugaritic and Aramaic that mean “furnace, fireplace.” Scholars believe Topheth was at the edge of the valley of the son of Hinnom, next to the Kidron Valley, and likely southwest of Jerusalem. An 8th Century BCE Phoenician inscription describes sacrifices made to Moloch before the Cilicians battled their enemies.
But its history does not end with those histories. It also resurfaces in the message of the prophet Jeremiah:
“And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31–32)
Jeremiah is saying that Babylon is coming with such devastation on Jerusalem that the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna) will become a burying place overflowing with corpses, not of children this time, but of the population which Babylon devastates. Notice that Jeremiah is warning not of a postmortem experience, but of a distinct this-life and this-world experience that would truly be “hell” for anyone caught in it: the literal destruction of Jerusalem by a Gentile kingdom—Babylon:
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7.1–11)
This passage in Jeremiah 7 is also the very passage Jesus quoted as he demonstrated against his own temple state’s exploitation of the poor. Jesus stood in Jeremiah’s prophetic, justice lineage and quoted this passage directly:
“And he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:46)
Jeremiah used Gehenna in specific ways:
“And go out to the VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM(Gehenna) at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, OR THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER.” (Jeremiah 19:2–6)
For Jeremiah, Gehenna had an end. It was not the equivalent of being eternally forsaken by God and the fact that Jeremiah thought of it as temporary suggests a restorative hope rather than a retributive one.
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes (Gehenna), and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31:38-40)
“See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:37)
“For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
Now let’s address the political climate of Jesus’ day very, how Jesus uses the language of the above passages, and how this all relates to us in our societal contexts today.