The Myth of the Burning Garbage Dump of Gehenna

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I’ve listened to many sermons and conference talks over the years which have included in them a curious factoid, namely that Gehenna was not only a reference to the Valley of Hinnon, but that it was also a perpetually burning trash dump. The idea is that the Valley of Hinnon laid just south of Jerusalem, immediately outside its walls, and that all the refuse and waste from Jerusalem was burned there. Some people use this historical tidbit to make a point either to paint a picture how foul, vivid and terrible hell would be, or alternately to suggest that there is no eternal hell, and the references Jesus makes to the fires of hell and torment was simply a reference to this burning trash pile. There is a emergent/universalist writer named Sharon Baker who has a book called Razing Hell. She offers the following highly imaginative description of this burning refuse heap, which serves as a nice, detailed amalgamation of all the descriptions I’ve heard of it over the years.

“Well before the time of Jesus, the valley was also used as a refuse heap. The people in the surrounding areas dumped their trash in Gehenna, where it burned day and night. The fire never went out. It smoldered there beneath the surface, incinerating the rotting, smelly garbage. New garbage was piled on top of the old decaying garbage: rotting fish, slimy vegetation, decaying human refuse of every imaginable sort. And as you know from experience, a dump without flies is a dump without garbage. The flies laid eggs on the surface of the dump. So just imagine the hundreds of thousands of squirmy, wormy maggots living there, eating the rotting refuse. All the while, under the surface, the fire still burned, devouring the putrid garbage days and weeks past.

 

It was a fire that burned forever, where the worm did not die and where people went to throw their trash, grimacing from the stench, gritting their teeth in revulsion, never venturing too close for fear of falling into the abhorrent abyss. In times of war, decaying human flesh mingled with the rotting garbage—imagine the vile vision. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, his hearers would think of the valley of rotting, worm-infested garbage, where the fire always burned, smoke always lingered, and if the wind blew just right, a smell that sickened the sense wafted in the air.” (pp. 129-30)

There’s only one problem. There is no biblical support for this, neither is there any literary sources or archaeological data from the intertestamental or rabbinic periods to suggest this. Put simply, there is no evidence that the valley was, in fact, a perpetually burning garbage dump. In fact, near as anyone can tell, the earliest mention we have of this theory comes a Rabbi named David Kimhi who wrote a commentary on Psalm 27 in the 13th Century. He remarked

“Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgement of the wicked is called ‘Gehenna.’

That’s it. That’s the earliest reference we have to it- a Rabbi writing in the middle ages from Europe, not Israel, some 1100 years after Jesus was born. He does not tell us where he got that information from and that is all we hear of it. There’s nothing before that. There is no mention in the tons upon tons of writings we have from Church Fathers, Christian and Jewish writers, or even secular writers for that matter. Its a blank slate until this commentary pops up. And as far as Rabbi Kimhi goes, note that even he stated the alleged dump of Gehenna became an analogy for the judgment of the wicked, which demonstrates that even the first writer to make this connection saw it to be an analogy for the place that the wicked will be judged.

Todd Bolen, from his bibleplaces blog, rounds up some scholarly sources. He quotes:

Edward Robinson, preeminent explorer of the Holy Land beginning in 1838. He wrote: “In these gardens, lying partly within the mouth of Hinnom and partly in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and irrigated by the waters of Siloam, Jerome assigns the place of Tophet; where the Jews practised the horrid rites of Baal and Moloch, and ‘burned their sons and their daughters in the fire.’ It was probably in allusion to this detested and abominable fire, that the later Jews applied the name of this valley (Gehenna), to denote the place of future punishment or the fires of hell. At least there is no evidence of any other fires having been kept up in the valley; as has sometimes been supposed” (Biblical Researches, vol. 1 [1841], 404-5).

 

James A. Montgomery observes this medieval commentator’s logic, but does not accept it. “With the common sense which often characterizes Jewish commentators, Kimhi says that the place was the dump of the city, where fires were always kept burning to destroy the refuse; ‘therefore the judgment of the wicked is parabolically called Gehenna.’ But from the Biblical references the place appears to have nothing physically objectionable about it; in contrast to its contemporary condition Jeremiah prophesied that it would one day be called ‘Valley of Slaughter’” (“The Holy City and Gehenna,” JBL 27/1 [1908], 34).

 

About the same time, G. R. Beasley-Murray made a similar observation: “The notion, still referred to by some commentators, that the city’s rubbish was burned in this valley, has no further basis than a statement by the Jewish scholar Kimhi made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source. The valley was the scene of human sacrifices, burned in the worship of Moloch (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6), which accounts for the prophecy of Jeremiah that it would be called the Valley of Slaughter under judgment of God (Jer. 7:32-33). This combination of abominable fires and divine judgment led to the association of the valley with a place of perpetual judgment (see Isa. 66:24) and later with a place of judgment by fire without any special connection to Jerusalem (see, for example, 1 Enoch 27:1ff., 54:1ff., 63:3-4, and 90:26ff)” (Jesus and the Kingdom of God, 376-77).

 

W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, in their excellent commentary on Matthew, note the lack of ancient evidence but do not entirely reject the notion of a garbage dump. “Why the place of torment came to have this name, the name of the valley south of Jerusalem, gê-hinnōm (Josh 18.16 LXX: Γαιεννα), now Wādier-rabābi, is uncertain. The standard view, namely, that the valley was where the city’s garbage was incinerated and that the constantly rising smoke and smell of corruption conjured up the fiery torments of the damned, is without ancient support, although it could be correct. Perhaps the abode of the wicked dead gained its name because children had there been sacrificed in fire to the god Molech (2 Chr 28.3; 33.6), or because Jeremiah, recalling its defilement by Josiah (2 Kgs 23.10; cr. 21.6), thundered against the place (Jer 7.31-2; 19.2-9; 32.35), or because it was believed that in the valley was the entrance to the underworld home of the pagan chthonian deities (cf. b. ‘Erub. 19a) (Matthew 1-7, 514-15).

I would consider this myth, much like the myth of the shepherd breaking the sheeps legsthe myth of the camel and and the eye of the needle gate, and the myth of the rope around the high priest’s ankle, to be thoroughly debunked.

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14 thoughts on “The Myth of the Burning Garbage Dump of Gehenna

  1. What I don’t understand is, even if Gehenna was what the anti-hell crowd says it was, how could it be a place where peoples’ souls go when they die?
    Do they think Jesus was saying …
    “But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in the local garbage dump” ?
    “And these will go away into the local garbage dump, but the righteous into eternal life” ?
    “The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in the local garbage dump …” ?

    • It COULD have been used as a garbage dump – archaeology shows us it has been used as a burial ground for sure. It is not impossible that it was desecrated by foreign invaders such as the Romans, etc.

      Gehenna and its garbage dump interpretation is not a soap box of the “anti-hell crowd” it’s simply a plausible interpretation which is what the Bible encourages through 100% of its texts. Do you have different interpretations than I? Sure you do, that doesn’t make you wrong and me right, or me right and you wrong – interpretations are a blessing, especially when done within the fertile soils of reason and rational contemplation.

  2. I really enjoy looking at these Myths. I wish more people would do the work to find the truth instead of just believing what they heard.

  3. I’ve studied this topic quite a bit, and can’t argue with your point about no about solid evidence for a consistently burning dump. However, this does not make it conclusive that there WASN’T. The fact is, it was completely possible. There is not conclusive evidence to the contrary. But more pragmatically, what is your conclusion? That if all of these explanations of a trash dump are false, then you uphold that the Bible is referring to an actual lake of fire for tormenting the wicked for eternity?

    • Your last sentence is exactly what I am asking the author of this article as well. They admonish this interpretation as a “myth” yet do not provide their own interpretation – how clever…

  4. Imagine teenage girls going through thousands of donated dresses to aid Operation Glass Slipper, which helps lowincome families send girls to prom in style.

  5. The explanation is very simple. Jesus’ analogy of the garbage dump and the fire was a picture of complete destruction, and anything that went in there was completely destroyed as that is what fire does, and if it got caught on the sides it was eaten by the worms so either way it was DESTROYED, permanently. This is the picture of the second death, not some place of eternal torment. The will be a trial/testing (not judgment, look up the Greek word) of mankind in the 1000 year millennial period after mankind is resurrected, repents and turns to Jesus and is given the chance to come back to God and righteousness and the perfected state that Adam was in before Sin. Satan is bound for this 1000 years and they are not under his influence during their time of testing. Then at the end of the thousand years Satan and his minions are let loosed for a little while so that the now perfected mankind may be subject to his influence and have the choice as Adam did, to obey God or listen and follow Satan. Anyone who does not make the choice for righteousness but chooses to follow after Satan will go to the second death, destroyed forever. Jesus died once for mankind’s sin, they are resurrected and given a second chance, but that is it.

  6. …And those whose names are not written in the Book of Life are thereby condemned to be thrown into the Great Trash Incinerator… That is what would be the literal translation if it were written in the vernacular.

  7. It’s not a myth at all. Jesus used allegory, metaphors, parables, allusions, and more literary devices to preach his messages – this instance is no different. To call something a myth with very little to support it is irresponsible at the very least. A myth is usually outlandish – the dictionary describes it as “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” as well as, “a widely held but false belief or idea.” The understanding of the gospels and more specifically of what Jesus is supposed to have said is paramount to interpretation and perception of the Christian faith, as well as a complete worldview I might add. If you are to fling the word “myth” around about such things as this, then you’d better throw it around other places as well, and that might get you into a mire, especially when you have a dead man rising from the grave and ascending into the heavens.

    I’d like to address a few things that argue against what you have said in this article:

    “There’s only one problem. There is no biblical support for this, neither is there any literary sources or archaeological data from the intertestamental or rabbinic periods to suggest this. Put simply, there is no evidence that the valley was, in fact, a perpetually burning garbage dump. In fact, near as anyone can tell, the earliest mention we have of this theory comes a Rabbi named David Kimhi who wrote a commentary on Psalm 27 in the 13th Century.”

    ^ This is completely wrong. The Valley of Hinnom is mentioned quite a bit in the ‘Old Testament’ and it is further reinforced by Jesus mentioning it. How do you argue against that? It was originally a burial ground and I am sure that through the ages it gained many meanings, perhaps even being a garbage dump at one point. Jerusalem has been ruled by many nations and powers, it is not unlikely that the burial grounds would have been desecrated by invading armies and rulers. There is no archaeological findings of your specific motion that it was not a burning dump, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been one. Archaeology is left wanting in many of its endeavors, many surround even Jesus himself. I do not find it outlandish that during Jesus’ time, during Roman rule, that the graves were a trash heap, it sounds pretty realistic actually. Given that you and I cannot go back in time, I think we will just have to agree to disagree on this point. It still remains though, regardless if Jesus was referring to mass graves, or a garbage dump – I believe the point remains quite the same.

    Jeremiah 19:6: “So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.”

    Mark 9:48 refers to the Isaiah 66:24, “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

    The constant use of the Valley of Slaughter or Gehenna is used multiple times both in the Old Testament and New, why would Jesus quote Isaiah? Is it a further prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans? Or were there actual fires burning trash amongst the burial grounds? One may never truly know, but I believe we all get the picture, regardless of perception or interpretation. The interpretation of Gehenna and its synonym of hell is not a stage to denounce the reality of a hell, but rather it encourages further thought and understanding of Jesus’ words and why they were used accordingly.

    http://www.goisrael.com/Tourism_Eng/Articles/Newsletterchr/Pages/Valley%20of%20Hinnom.aspx

    Israel even has a whole page dedicated to its history on their tourism website – I don not know how you arrived to these conclusions that the place is some sort of myth in regards to it being a supposed place of garbage at one point, it’s not. Israel nods at its use as a dump, and a burial ground throughout the history of the place. Jesus most certainly used it as pungent and powerful metaphor, or perhaps a living parable that people could literally look upon and understand exactly what he meant. Who here has the faith of a mustard seed? Is your faith the size of an olive? How big is your faith? Jesus is no stranger to literature and literary devices to convey his points, he was a master at it. Preaching to groups of people and being able to point to the Valley of Hinnom would have been a very powerful sermon indeed. People who were reflective of his words, would have understood immediately what he meant by comparing life without love and faith in GOD to a garbage heap or as archaeology shows us, a burial ground full of the dead. The point is not lost here regardless of interpretation.

    I hope I shed a different shade of light onto this subject, as your article was rather irresponsible in its nature. If you have a response to my comment, please answer me this; In your interpretation of the gospel, what do you think Jesus meant by his reference of Isaiah 66:24?

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