Let’s try to hear this language about Gehenna in its original Jewish context rather than in a modern Christian one. In the justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Gehenna had a rich history. Gehenna, the valley of the son of Hinnom, was a place where child sacrifice was practiced. Later it became a place where Gentile empires would raze Jerusalem and massacre the Jewish people. The reference in the gospels makes perfect sense: Matthew was written in the wake of Jerusalem being razed again, this time by Rome. Jerusalem’s total destruction was what some Jews, including Jesus-followers, were trying to make sense of. Without the temple and without Jerusalem, it was as if the Jewish community had been thrown completely into Gehenna.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Consider how Gehenna evolved in the scriptures:
“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)
“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)
“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, emphasis added.)
It’s telling that the gospel authors put Jeremiah’s words in Jesus’s mouth during his temple protest against exploitation of the poor. Jesus flips over the money changers’ tables, saying “You have made this house a den of robbers.”
There’s one last passage we need to consider from Jeremiah in order to make a present day application to our justice work today. We’ll take a look at it, next.
(Read Part 3)