Background on Gehenna,  fate of the useless

Gehennah is twice mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Once as a place where the worthless could be burnt (Matt 5:21-22) and once as a place where the useless were cast (Matt 5:29-30). and elsewhere Jesus refers to Gehenna:

The name Gehenna (or Gehennah) is an Aramaic word, contracted from ‘Ge Hinnom,’ i.e. Valley of Hinnom. The Himmon valley is an L-shaped downstream continuation of the Kidron valley, running immediately to the south and then west of the city walls of old Jerusalem. It is currently known as Wadi er-Rababeh (Watson 1992, 926).

Gehenna seems to have been linked to the Mosaic Law’s requirement that pots which became unclean were smashed (Lev 11:33-35) and any irredeemably unclean items were burned (e.g. Lev 13:52). The Law also required that precious metal items like shields or swords were passed through fire to burn away the unclean contaminates (Num 31:23). What was true for the fire of the altar, i.e. that it should never be allowed to go out (Lev 6:12), would have been true for the fires used for this process, for they had to burn until all evidence of uncleanliness was removed. To keep these fires fuelled and limit the number of fires around the city, it would have made sense to use the same site for burning general flammable rubbish from the city.

Although the scriptures don't state where the activity of cleansing by burning was carried out, it would certainly have been outside the city, yet practicality demands that it would also have be near to it. Given the prevailing westerly winds, a location in the valleys to the east of the city would have been sensible. Such a site, in the upper part of the Kidron, east of the temple, had been chosen as a clean place for ritual burning of sin offerings (Ex 29:34). The cleansing incineration could not have occupied the same place, but could easily have been carried out in the lower Kidron valley or easternmost part of the Valley of Hinnom. A review of the biblical evidence suggests there was indeed an association between the Valley of Himmon and the disposal of unclean items.

The Valley of Hinnom came to prominence through the idolatrous activities of Judah’s King Ahaz, who burnt incense in it and offered his children to foreign deities there (2 Chr 28:3). Manasseh repeated Ahaz idolatry and, from the Bible’s criticism of his actions, it is clear that this involved making his sons pass through fire (2 Chr 33:6). During the reforms of King Josiah, he destroyed many of the idolatrous artefacts left by Ahaz and Manasseh. As part of this we read that ‘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 WEB). Hence, Topeth earned its evil reputation because things, which never ought to have been, were made to pass through the fire there (2 Chr 33:6). Josiah was in the practice of defiling sacred sites by ‘sacrificing’ their priests in them and burning human bones on their altars (1 Kgs 13:2), i.e. by filling them with the corpses of the idolaters and then allowing fire to reduce them to dust. It is therefore likely that Topeth was defile in this manner.

Topeth lay near both the Potsherd Gate (Jer 19:2, 6) and the Potters Field, at the eastern end of the Valley of Hinnom. As a prophetic sign Jeremiah was instructed to break a pot representing unclean Jerusalem in the vicinity of Topeth (Jer 19:10). Thus, the Potsherd Gate’s name may reflect the routine breaking of unclean pots in that area, whilst the presence of a potters field nearby makes sense, as potters would sensibly have based themselves near to an area so often frequented by those in need of a replacement pot. The ritual smashing activity was, for unclean pots, the equivalent to the burning of unclean combustible items. It made sense for the two processes to happen near to one another, if only to limit the dangers of cross-contamination.  

If Gehenna was the place of cleansing fire, then when contamination rendered a thing useless to God, it could be consigned to Gehenna. Gehenna’s fires would then either prove to be the destruction of the item, or serve as a refiner’s fire, purging unclean from clean, in other words separating the silver from the dross.

Through the writing prophets, Gehenna, with the associated idea of Topeth, took on a metaphorical significance. Hence Isaiah, envisaging a point at which Assyria ceased to be useful to God, speaks of a funeral pyre being readied in Topeth for the Assyrian king (Isa 30:33). Jeremiah also refers to Topeth in this way. During the lead up to Judah’s exile from Jerusalem, God used him to complain that Topeth had once again become a site of pagan activity (Jer 7:31). The prophet’s pot-smashing (Jer 19:10) then became a sign that Jerusalem was contaminated and, like an unclean pot, would be destroyed to stop the contamination spreading. Topeth would, announced the prophet, again be defile by corpses (Jer 7:32-33), this time resulting from the destruction of idolatrous Jerusalem.

During the Intertestamental Period, the assignment of worthless material into Gehenna became a metaphor for the fiery fate of all that is found worthless. Hence, Gehenna came to be associated with the idea of Hell (Lee 1986, 423). The Talmud preserves rabbinic traditions that develop upon the ideas already inherent in the Hebrew Bible. In typical manner these seem to extrapolate from the way God had dealt with men in past ages to the way God will deal with men in the envisaged age-to-come. The paradise of Eden and the torment of Gehenna are seen as alternative destinations (Rodkinson 1918, 5:90). Hence ‘Gehenna will be the place for the bold of face, and the Garden of Eden will be that for the shamefaced.’ (Rodkinson 1918, 5:133). Gehennah could be equated with the wrath of God (Rodkinson 1918, 7:30), so those who were believed to deserve such wrath were assign to Gehenna or called sons of Gehenna. For example, those who debated the decrees of Sadducees were said to risk falling into Gehenna (Rodkinson 1918, 5:19) and the disciples of Balaam were said to have descend into Gehenna (Rodkinson 1918, 5:133). The sons of Korah ended up there when the earth swallowed them (m. B. Bat. 74a), where they joined those who died in the Noahic flood (Rodkinson 1918, 8:351) and are accompanied by the likes of the rich men of the Babylonians (Rodkinson 1918, 4:64) and idolaters (Rodkinson 1918, 4:9).

There were two ways to live, a way of rightousness that led to Eden and the way of wickedness the end of which was Gehenna.  So, rather predictably, rabbinic teaching linked avoiding Gehenna with embracing God’s Law (m. B. Bat. 79a). Indeed some claimed that studying just a single Law was sufficient to avoid Gehenna (Rodkinson, 1918, 8:364) or that any Israelite was so full of the Mosaic Law that Gehenna would not touch them even if they sinned (Rodkinson 1918, 3:53-54).

Amongst the rabbis’ teachings we find echoes of the inferred cleansing function of Topeth, for some suggest that, whilst the righteous are marked and set aside for life and the irredeemably wicked are consigned to Gehenna forever, there are a third class (Rodkinson 1918, 2:26). For these people Gehenna proves a time of testing, in keeping with Zechariah’s promise, “I will bring the third part into the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will test them like gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say, ‘It is my people;’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’” (Zech 13:9, HNV).

Just as Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah passed through their fiery ordeal and emerged liberated from the sentence of death (Dan 1:7, 3:22-28), some rabbis believed the fire of Gehenna cleansed the souls of the righteous which were then released into Heaven (Rodkinson, 1918, 3:251-252). In the same way that the annual judgement of the Day of Atonement provided a way back into blessing at the end of any year spent suffering under the Mosaic curses for disobedience, so the rabbis saw Gehenna’s redemptive suffering as limited to 12 months for those who responded with repentance (Rodkinson 1918, 2:27). Moreover, some believed that suffering in this life, through illness, poverty, persecution or, it was sometimes suggested, a bad wife, could have the same effect as Gehenna, entirely avoiding the need for the sufferer to go there (Rodkinson 1918, 2:93-94, 7:26). By contrast, in keeping with Isaiah’s promise, “they shall go forth, and look on the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isa 66:24, WEB), it was believed by some that ‘informers and disbelievers, who deny the Torah, or Resurrection, or separate themselves from the congregation, or who inspire their fellow men with dread of them, or who sin and cause others to sin’ would find themselves in Gehenna forever (Rodkinson 1918, 2:27).

In rabbinic tradition, Gehenna was created before the world and its fires lit on the eve of the first Sabbath, i.e. immediately after God created man (Rodkinson 1918, 3:93). They also expected that after the final judgement the Lord would burn up the wicked and the need for Gehenna would cease to exist (Rodkinson 1918, 9:5).

From the above discussion, it appears that the references to Gehenna within the Sermon on the Mount are entirely consistent with the history of the place and the Rabbinic concept of its function.