Was “Gehenna” a Smoldering Garbage Dump?

For as long as I can remember I’ve heard that Gehenna was not only a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem but that it was also a rubbish heap or garbage dump which was always smoldering with fire and provided the perfect imagery for an eternal punishment. Sharon Baker in her book, Razing Hell, provides this description:

“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 wafed in the air.” (pp. 129-30)

I consulted over a dozen study Bibles on Matthew 5:22 and no less than eight of them made a reference to the rubbish heap. Almost every major commentary on Matthew that mentions Gehenna also spoke of the garbage dump.  I’ve always thought that this was an established fact.

So imagine my complete shock when I stumbled across this passage from an article by Peter Head:

“Gehenna is presented as diametrically opposed to ‘life’: it is better to enter life than to go to Gehenna. . .It is common practice, both in scholarly and less technical works, to associate the description of Gehenna with the supposedly contemporary garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom. This association often leads scholars to emphasize the destructive aspects of the judgment here depicted: fire burns until the object is completely consumed. Two particular problems may be noted in connection with this approach. First, there is no convincing evidence in the primary sources for the existence of a fiery rubbish dump in this location (in any case, a thorough investigation would be appreciated). Secondly, the significant background to this passage more probably lies in Jesus’ allusion to Isaiah 66:24.” (“The Duration of Divine Judgment in the New Testament” in The Reader Must Understand edited by K. Brower and M. W. Ellion, p. 223, emphasis mine)

What?! Surely he’s wrong. He’s a lone voice contradicting all my study Bibles. How can he be right? But then I realized that in all my reading about this garbage dump no one ever provided any supporting documentation. So I dug a little further and found this from G. R. Beasley-Murray in Jesus and the Kingdom of God:

“Ge-Hinnom (Aramaic Ge-hinnam, hence the Greek Geenna), ‘The Valley of Hinnom,’ lay south of Jerusalem, immediately outside its walls. 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 Kimchi (sic) made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source.” (p. 376n.92)

And consider this from an article from the journal Bibliotheca Sacra

“The traditional explanation that a burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13 (ca. A.D. 1200). He maintained that in this loathsome valley fires were kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and cadavers thrown into it. However, Strack and Billerbeck state that there is neither archeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources (Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch, 5 vols. [Munich: Beck, 1922-56], 4:2:1030). Also a more recent author holds a similar view (Lloyd R. Bailey, “Gehenna: The Topography of Hell,” Biblical Archeologist 49 [1986]: 189. (p. 328n.17)

I don’t know about you but this is enough to cause me to seriously doubt the garbage dump theory. At the very least one of the many study Bibles or commentaries could say that the theory is seriously doubted. Only one or two commentaries that I consulted even noted that there was any doubt as to the validity of the theory.

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19 thoughts on “Was “Gehenna” a Smoldering Garbage Dump?

  1. Fascinating! This seems like a perfect example of how things become established as ‘fact’ by mere repetition.

  2. This is the sort of responsible academic undertaking that should result from our recent concerns about hell. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I had actually heard that this claim was sketchily founded. That said, it is well-established that the Valley of Hinnom was a place of child sacrifice to the god Moloch and was cursed by God and a figure of His judgment.

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  6. And therefore…what?

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  11. The issue is, why should we believe, in turn, the three texts cited that *question* the Gehenna/dump theory? Are their assertions about a lack of positive evidence accurate? (One of those texts even points out the absence of a “thorough investigation” of the issue.)

  12. Pingback: Gehenna | Conditional Immortality Blog

  13. ok, so what is gehenna? what is the fire and worms about? was it ever a garbage dump or nor?? i don’t get what you’re trying to say here. surely there is a reason why Jesus used it metaphorically?

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  15. Pingback: Discusssion around the article Tracing the Road to Gehenna | Afterlife

  16. Pingback: The Myth of Hellfire Part 4: Gehenna | Forgotten Paths

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