🔼The name Gehenna: Summary
- Valley of Muffled Groaning
- From (1) גיא (gai'), valley, and (2) the noun נהם (naham), muffled groan.
🔼The name Gehenna in the Bible
The name Gehenna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew term גיא הנם (gai' hinnom), or Gai Hinnom, meaning the Valley of Hinnom or the Valley Of Groaning, which is either the same as or adjacent to the Valley of Ben-hinnom. It's associated with Jerusalem's Potsherd Gate (Jeremiah 19:2), with the worship of Molech and with the deploy of a device called Topheth, which allowed parents to willingly burn their children in an apparent attempt to purify Israel from sin.
Today everybody pretty much agrees that burning one's children is always a bad idea, whether morally, emotionally, financially, politically or theologically, but why this would be is devilishly difficult to explain. And this may very well be the reason why people began to do it and kept doing it until Herod the Great killed the last of the Hasmoneans (and the innocents of Bethlehem): not out of barbarism and brutality, but rather out of a relatively minor error that had slithered into an otherwise perfectly solid theological foundation. It must be remembered that both the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil existed before the fall, and thus were created as beautiful and perfect as the rest of Paradise (Genesis 3:6).
The world was saved because God the Father offered His own Son to pay the price of man's sins (John 3:16). Since man is to imitate God (Matthew 5:48), why would man not consider sacrificing his own children? God demanded of Abraham to go up mount Moriah and sacrifice Isaac as a burned offering (Genesis 22:2), and on that same mountain, Solomon would later build the temple. So, no, child-sacrifice through fire is not very far removed from the core principles of Biblical theology.
Modern (i.e. medieval) Jewish sages observed that hell was created by God along with Paradise, at the final moments of creation, and that God reckoned both among the "very good" (Genesis 1:31, but see 2:8). Others insist that hell was a second-day production, or even arose in the time before time. Some proposed that the "fiery furnace" with which God sealed the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17) was the same as hell, and that hell had three gates and shared one with Jerusalem.
But it's prudent to note that these are not mere guesses, but rather came as conclusions of lengthy arguments that puzzled a great many Biblical events into vast patterns. These Jewish sages operated like modern scientists. While regarding the Law and the Prophets as a closed set of data, they followed the logic wherever it led.
The difference between Christian scholars and Jewish ones is that Christians are often dualistic, and think in terms of eternal rejection versus eternal salvation, whereas Jewish scholars are monotheists, who think in terms of function and the proper place of all created things. To Christians, the fall of man caused a perpetual rift between the two realms of darkness and light, of God and satan, of life and death. To Jews, the fall caused a huge mess of things, that has to be (and ultimately will be) sorted back into its proper functioning order.
To Christians, hell could somehow be a place where the omnipresent God was not. To Jews, the unquenchable fire in which both men and their evil deeds would burn (Isaiah 1:31, see 1 Corinthians 3:15) was identical to the wrath of God, which ignited upon the introduction of evil in the world and will rage on without stopping (כבה, kaba, to extinguish) until the world is cleared of it (2 Kings 22:17, Isaiah 1:31, 34:10, 66:24, Jeremiah 4:4, 7:20, 17:27, 21:12, Ezekiel 20:47-48, Amos 5:6, Mark 9:44).
🔼Heaven and hell
The notion that man should judge man (and parents their children), and that the strong (the better, the holier, the Über-) should find ways to rid the world of the weak (the lesser, the unholy, the Unter-) is of course entirely pagan. This idea forms the very heart of Fascism and most recently resulted in the Holocaust (i.e. ολως, holos, wholly + καιω, kaio, to burn).
The opposite Biblical idea is that the strong were given their strength so that they might deploy it to protect the weak. People of God don't judge — not even themselves (1 Corinthians 4:3) — and protect where needed and teach where possible, but ultimately let God do all the judging and weeding out (Luke 6:37, Romans 2:1, James 4:12). On the rare occasions that someone (even a disobedient child: Deuteronomy 21:18-21, or an animal: Exodus 21:28) was indeed administered capital punishment, he was only executed after a full consensus of all the people was achieved. Then everybody was to pick up stones and hurl it at the person, starting with the witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:7). When Jesus uttered the famous words: "He who is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone," he emphasized that a testimony that is even the slightest bit biased makes every executioner a murderer, as much condemned to death as the victim.
The term usually translated with Potsherd Gate is שער החרסות (sha'ar haharsit), which also means Hairy Itch, Engraving of Horror and Deaf Goat. The link with "engraving" suggests we are dealing with considerations of information technology (note that the "name" YHWH may actually have pointed to the alphabet; hence YHWH is the father of the Word). The familiar Greek word tragedy, or τραγωδια (tragodia), consists of ωδη (ode), song, and τραγος (tragos), goat, and thus literally means Ode to Goat.
Popular understanding imagines heaven and hell as opposites, but the Bible never speaks of heaven and hell and always of heaven and earth. Contrary to common perception, darkness is not the opposite of light but the absence of it, and not the presence of something else. Light (more correctly: electromagnetism) comes before all things and holds all things together (Colossians 1:17), and darkness causes things to fall apart, but does not cause them to re-accumulate into some other form. Darkness is the absence of light, just like death is the absence of life, but not the presence of something else. Evil is the absence of good, but not the presence of something else. Folly is the absence of wisdom, and love is the absence of hate, but not the presence of something else.
The Hebrew Bible doesn't really discuss an afterlife — the familiar name Sheol is really the word for grave or bodily disintegration, whereas heaven, שמים (shamayim), has more to do with the collective consciousness (including language) of the presently living — and the Christian idea of heaven and hell is rather based on the Greek idea of Elysium and Hades. Contrary to common intuition, the familiar Christian idea of heaven (where the preserved human elements reside) and hell (where the rejected elements reside) is dualistic in nature, and falls short of the monotheism of the Bible (including the New Testament).
The name Gehenna occurs 12 times in the New Testament; see full concordance, 11 of which in the words of Jesus.
🔼Etymology of the name Gehenna
As stated above, the name Gehenna consists of two parts. The first part of our name comes from the noun גיא (gai'), meaning valley:
The verb גיח (giah), or גוח (gwh), means to burst forth. It's applied to rivers and human births. Human collectives such as families and tribes are in the Bible often symbolized as mountains. Hence births signify valleys and are associated with rivers.
Verb גיא (gy') isn't used in the Bible and its meaning is subsequently unknown. The derived noun גיא (gai'), however, means valley and is used frequently. There are at least seven named valleys mentioned in the Old Testament.
The observation that "every valley shall be exalted and every mountain made low" ties into the principle of rebirth, via which is peopled a world in which every individual is king and high priest and utterly free.
The second part of our name comes from the name Hinnom, which appears to stem from the following cluster:
The masculine pronouns הם (hem) and המה (hemma) mean "they." The feminine versions are הנה (henna) and הן (hen). The singular versions (meaning he and she) are הוא (hu) and היא (hi).
The similar verb המה (hama) means to be noisy, and that particularly of a "them". The derived masculine noun המון (hamon) denotes a noisy multitude.
The verb נהה (naha) means to wail or lament, and is probably onomatopoeic, after the sound of crying. Nouns נהי (nehi), נהיה (nihya), ני (ni) and הי (hi) all describe forms of wailing.
The verb נהם (naham) describes a muffled groaning. Nouns נהם (naham) and נהמה (nehama) mean a growling.
The noun נאם (ne'um) describes a labored utterance of a prophet in trance. Denominative verb נאם (na'am), means to utter a prophetic utterance.
The name Gehenna literally means Valley of Groaning, and the most significant difference with the Greco-Christian idea of hell is that Gehenna was a real place, just outside Jerusalem, easily accessible by the living and certainly not peopled by the dead. Gehenna appears to have been Jerusalem's trash heap, where perpetual fires consumed the city's wastes. It doesn't overstretch the imagination to assume that Gehenna was peopled by scavengers who sifted through the ashes searching for accidentally discarded metal objects. After all, "the words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times" (Psalm 12:6).
The Nicene creed insists that Jesus descended into hell, but this is a Greek theme (Orpheus, Odysseus, Heracles and several others all went to Hades but returned victoriously to the land of the living). To a Jewish audience, only a pile of rejected garbage would make a trip to Gehenna, and a resurrection from that place would have proved a hitherto unknown usefulness of something unexpectedly fire-proof: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone" (Psalm 118:22).