Gehenna – “Hell” in the Old Testament

Today I am finally going to tackle the subject of Gehenna. Also known in the Old testament as the Valley of the son of Hinnom, Gehinnom, or Tophet and rendered “Hell” or “Hell fire” in many translations. Bear with me, there is a lot to cover and I still have a lot to learn. I have a feeling this might turn into multiple posts.

Geographically, Gehenna is a valley located right below old Jerusalem’s walls. I looked up a travel site for visiting the Holy Land. Gehenna is apparently a beautiful rich farmland, and was included in Judah’s portion when the Israelite people conquered Canaan. Its on the border between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

And the border went up by the valley of the son of Hinnom unto the south side of the Jebusite; the same is Jerusalem: and the border went up to the top of the mountain that lieth before the valley of Hinnom westward, which is at the end of the valley of the giants northward: Joshua 15:8

We do not really start hearing about this valley again until the time of King Ahaz’s reign -and not for a pleasant reason.

King Ahaz:

For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made also molten images for Baalim.Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel.He sacrificed also and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree.2 Chronicles 28:2-4,

Check out another, King Mannassah

And he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom: also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. 2 Chronicles 33:6

Isaiah prophesied that the valley would be a place of God’s judgement on the people of Judah for breaking the covenant with God.

33For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it. Isaiah 30: 27-33 (check out my post on Fire and Brimstone)

These kings led the people of Judah away from the worship of their true God, to worship false gods. The main one is: Molech

“the king of fire” (the word “molech” is thought to be a corruption of the Hebrew word for king, melech,… with the vowels of the word “shame”… added). This gigantic statue apparently had an ox’s head, a hollow belly, and outstretched arms. It was said to have stood within a Canaanite temple that had seven chambers. According to the Yalkut Shimoni (a collection of midrashim), a person who brought the “god” a gift of flour was allowed into the first chamber a person who brought a gift of doves could enter the second chamber. A sheep gave access to the third, a ram to the fourth, a calf to the fifth, and a bull to the sixth. But if a true worshiper brought his infant son for sacrifice, he would be granted access to the seventh “grand” chamber of the Ammonite temple. The priests of Molech would heat up the belly of the idol and then burn the child to death in the idol’s outstretched arms. Their frenetic drumming and shouts to the idol drowned out the screams of the baby.”

 And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord. Leviticus 18:21

 Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the Lord thy God.29 When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land;30 Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.31 Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. Deuteronomy  12:28-31

Then we get to King Josiah. King Josiah followed God and tried to reform the people of Judah by destroying their idolatrous alters, high priests, groves, and even horses.

And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. 2 Kings 23:10

About halfway through King Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah the prophet comes to warn them about the judgement coming from God for their idolatry. He specifically mentions Gehenna twice.

30 For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the LORD: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it. 31 And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.32 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter: for they shall bury in Tophet, till there be no place. 33 And the carcasses of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth; and none shall fray them away. 34 Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judah, and from the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride: for the land shall be desolate. Jeremiah 7:30-34

And say, Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle. 4 Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents; 5 They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind: 6 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of slaughter. Jeremiah 19:3-6

Now I want to take a step back from the Valley of the Son of Hinnom just for a second and look at the history of the Israelite people. From the moment Moses led them out of Egypt up until this point they were constantly turning away from following God’s commandments. The golden calf, refusing to enter the Promise Land because of fear, the need for Judges, the demand for a king, and so many more instances fill the pages of the old Testament.

And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger. Judges 2:12

And time after time, God used an enemy, or famine, disease, etc. to turn them back to Him.

“When bad things happen to Jews, it is never by chance. It is always a consequence of Jewish actions, and therefore, the remedy is never to deal solely with the external threat. If an enemy attacks, defense is in order, but so is introspection; the presence of enemy is only a symptom of a deeper problem that must be dealt with. This cause and effect relationship repeats itself over and over again throughout the period of the Judges and continues throughout Jewish history until today.”  – Ken Spiro, The Time of the Judges

Back to Gehenna. When Judah was about to be conquered, Jeremiah told the people to stay and face the judgement from God. He knew that they would not be able to escape it and needless lives would die in the fight/flight. But they didn’t listen, and instead fled to Egypt (a symbol of sin and the world). Eventually they were conquered, the temple destroyed by fire, and the people of Judah were taken captive. God’s judgement came.

Check out this quote from an Intro to Jeremiah :

“Called to the unhappy task of announcing the destruction of the kingdom of Judah (thoroughly corrupted by the long and evil reign of Manasseh and only superficially affected by Josiah’s efforts at reform), it was Jeremiah’s commission to lodge God’s indictment against his people and proclaim the end of an era. At long last, the Lord was about to inflict on the remnant of his people the ultimate covenant curse (see Lev 26:31–33; Dt 28:49–68). He would undo all that he had done for them since the day he brought them out of Egypt. It would then seem that the end had come, that Israel’s stubborn and uncircumcised (unconsecrated) heart had sealed her final destiny, that God’s chosen people had been cast off, that all the ancient promises and covenants had come to nothing.

But God’s judgment of his people (and the nations), though terrible, was not to be the last word, the final work of God in history. Mercy and covenant faithfulness would triumph over wrath. Beyond the judgment would come restoration and renewal. Israel would be restored, the nations that crushed her would be crushed, and the old covenants (with Israel, David and the Levites) would be honored. God would make a new covenant with his people in which he would write his law on their hearts (see 31:31–34 and notes; see also Heb 8:8–12 and note) and thus consecrate them to his service. The new covenant was cast in the form of ancient Near Eastern royal grant treaties and contained unconditional, gracious and profoundly spiritual, moral, ethical and relational promises (see chart, p. 23). The house of David would rule God’s people in righteousness, and faithful priests would serve. God’s commitment to Israel’s redemption was as unfailing as the secure order of creation (ch. 33).

Jeremiah’s message illumined the distant as well as the near horizon. It was false prophets who proclaimed peace to a rebellious nation, as though the God of Israel’s peace was indifferent to her unfaithfulness. But the very God who compelled Jeremiah to denounce sin and pronounce judgment was the God who authorized him to announce that the divine wrath had its bounds, its 70 years. Afterward forgiveness and cleansing would come—and a new day, in which all the old expectations, aroused by God’s past acts and his promises and covenants, would yet be fulfilled in a manner transcending all God’s mercies of old.”

There is this tendency to look at God’s judgement as something reserved for the wicked. Aren’t we all wicked though? We are still fighting this inherent sin nature, the natural man. Just because we are disciples of Yeshua does not mean we are all of a sudden perfect and holy. We forget that God also judges those of us who follow Him. If we stray from obeying God, then He will judge us. He will bring about trials and tribulation into our lives to give us a wake up call. And if we still refuse to turn back, still hang on to the sin that has entered into our lives, He will throw us into a spiritual Gehenna.

30 When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice;31 (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them. Deuteronomy 4:30,31

He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he…For the LORD shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, andthere is none shut up, or left.And he shall say, Where are their gods, their rock in whom they trusted,Which did eat the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their drink offerings? let them rise up and help you, andbe your protection.See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand.For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever.If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me.I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy.Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.Deuteronomy 32:4, 36-3 (The song of Moses)

 14 Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.15 Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, OLord, in the light of thy countenance.16 In thy name shall they rejoice all the day: and in thy righteousness shall they be exalted…30If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments;31 If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments;32 Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.33 Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail.34 My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.Psalms 89:14-16, 30-34

But the beauty of God’s judgement is that it is always merciful. He never does it out of spite, but as a loving father who brings His children back to Him. He never changes. He never breaks His word or promises. He always fulfilled His covenant with Israel, no matter how many times they broke it and angered Him.

I love this quote from the travel side site that I mentioned above:

“Your visit to Gehenna will end on a note of healing: Just around the corner from the convent is the Pool of Siloam. There, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the Second Temple pool where Jesus told a blind man to wash to restore his sight (John 9:1-11). Beyond it lies the City of David, with many more treasures to explore.”

The judgement of the LORD will open your spiritual eyes, revealing your infirmities and sinfulness all while revealing His Holiness and Love!

This is what I have for now on Gehenna, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, based on the Old Testament. Next I hope to tackle the New Testament references to this valley.

Peace to you. Shalom  שָׁלוֹם


2 thoughts on “Gehenna – “Hell” in the Old Testament

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