🔼The name Topheth: Summary
- Drums, Sound Of Scientific Inquiry
- Fire Place
- From the noun תף (top), drum or tambourine.
- From the noun תפי (tp'), cooking stove.
🔼The name Topheth in the Bible
The name Topheth belongs to a device or installation of some sort, located in the Valley of Ben-hinnom (also known as Gehenna, what later became hell), by which people made their children "pass through fire" for Molech (2 Kings 23:10). What the formula "pass through fire" precisely means isn't clear, but most scholars agree that it probably resulted in child sacrifice. What, precisely, made people sacrifice their children isn't clear either, especially also since parents are naturally wired to do everything to ensure their offspring's survival.
It should additionally be noted that fire was considered a cleaning agent (Numbers 31:23), a social centralizing agent and a light bringer in dark nights (see our article on πυρ, pur, fire). And the verb "to pass" is עבר ('abar), from which come the names Hebrew and Abarim. And God, whom we are to imitate (Matthew 5:48, Ephesians 5:1), would ultimately sacrifice his own Son.
We moderns have the benefit of theological hindsight but to the ancients there was only a very fine line between how to do it right and how to do it horribly wrong. The story of Isaac's sacrifice on mount Moriah is obviously also a meditation on how to do it right: indeed, God demands the sacrificial death of our children, but never so that we physically slaughter them (compare 1 Samuel 1:3 to 1:11, and see 1:21-22, 1:25 and 1:28). And Daniel and friends were cast into fire, but the fire couldn't harm them (Daniel 3:25). Still, the Law prescribes:
"If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother ... then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst" (Deuteronomy 28:18-21).
The prophet Isaiah describes the Topheth physically: it's a gully of some length, filled with wood to an elevated bulge, which is, rather strikingly, ignited by the "breath of YHWH", which is the very breath of life (Genesis 2:7, also see 1 Kings 18:38):
"For Topheth has long been ready. Indeed, it has been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large: a pyre of fire with plenty of wood. The breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire" (Isaiah 30:33).
The prophet Jeremiah mentions Topheth in the theologically highly significant statement:
"They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind. Therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place" (Jeremiah 7:31-32, also see 19:6).
The significance of this, of course, is that it proclaims that YHWH learns (which was already demonstrated by Genesis 11:5) — which challenges the understanding of some, that God does not learn or ever changes. A possible solution is that YHWH does not describe the essential nature of God but rather the name by which he was known, or, said otherwise, the knowledge of man of God (something comparable is described in Luke 2:40 and 2:52).
Topheth is featured more elaborately in Jeremiah 19:6 and 19:11-14, where Jeremiah is to smash an earthen pot as a sign that the people of Israel will likewise be broken to pieces. Significantly, the Lord condemns the burning of the innocent (Jeremiah 19:4), but then proclaims: "I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters" (19:9). This, inevitably, would sooner relate to the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26-28), than to cannibalism.
Note that the Gate that led to the valley of Ben-hinnom was called the Potsherd Gate (Jeremiah 19:2). The word for potsherd(s) is חרסית (harsit), from the verb חרש (haras), to scratch or erase; often with the objective of deleting incorrect or rejected information. This verb is spelled identically to the verb חרש (harash), to scratch or engrave, often with the objective of storing information.
All this suggests that the Topheth was designed to bring about the very social cleansing and purification that the Lord had ordered. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was part of the perfectly created world. Long before the fall, this tree was "good for food", "a delight to the eyes" and "desirable to make one wise" (Genesis 3:6). The trouble started when Eve and Adam took of its fruit and ate it. There was nothing wrong with the fruit; eating it was wrong. There's nothing wrong with having preferences, and avoiding the unpreferred, but there is something wrong with judging with the intent of condemning the rejected to an untimely demise. The only One who is authorized to remove unwanted elements is the Lord Himself. Our job is to take care of whatever needs care, to repair and heal, to teach and console.
Love fulfills the law and gives life, and although the law is perfect, its function is to point out sin, and so it kills. Or in the words of Jesus:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves (Matthew 23:15).
🔼Etymology of the name Topheth
The origin of the name Topheth is formally unclear, although popularly it's obvious that it would have reminded of the noun תף (top), meaning drum or tambourine:
The verb פתת (patat) means to break up or crumble, and the noun פת (pat) means fragment. Noun תף (top) means drum or tambourine, and the verb תפף (tapap) means to beat a drum or tambourine. Although the link to the former is not immediate, it's not unthinkable that, to the ancients, the sound of drums represented the sound of things breaking, and thus of scientific inquiry.
In Greek there is the verb θαπτω (thapto), to burry or cremate, with nouns ταφη (taphe) and ταφος (taphos) describing a burial or cremation, but here at Abarim Publications we privately suspect that these words were imported into Greek from the Semitic language basin rather than the other way around.
In Aramaic, there is a noun תפי (tp'), spittle, from a verb תפף (tapap), to spit. This is significant because spitting at someone was a sign of rejection (Numbers 12:14, Deuteronomy 25:9, Matthew 26:67). Another Aramaic noun תפי (tp') describes a cooking stove, which is of course significant because of the fire of Topheth, but also because of God's decree that people would eat the flesh of their children. All this seems horrible and incomprehensibly barbaric to modern sentiments, but the patterns that tie these words together is really rather pervasive. The familiar dictum "kill your darlings" explains the creative process and certainly does not incite to murder.
Our modern word science comes from the same root as the Greek verb σχιζω (schizo), meaning to break, split or divide. That suggests that to the ancients, the sound of drums was the sound of scientific inquiry. The Hebrew word בן (ben) means son, and probably comes from the verb בנה (bana) meaning to build, such as a house. The feminine version of בן (ben) is בת (bat), which means daughter. Linguistically unrelated but still striking is the word בית (bayit, or beth in constructs such as Bethel or Bethlehem), which means house. And equally unrelated but still striking is the verb בין (bin), literally meaning being able to see a difference; perceive or discern. A derivative of this verb is the substantive בין (ben), meaning between.
Wisdom is not merely a matter of figuring things out; equally important is the way in which this is done and how the rejected is treated. The scientific method allows investigators to identify hypotheses that are certainly wrong, so as to reject them (this is why hypotheses must be falsifiable), but when humans set out to obliterate everything that is not immediately useful, the inevitable result is mass destruction. Wisdom seeks purpose, and as long as the purpose of something isn't found, the thing is still potentially useful and should be preserved (or at least released; think of manure and its effect on fields). After all, the stone which the builders may one day confidently reject, may some other day be found to perfectly fit some crucially important place (Psalm 118:22).
Hence Paul urged: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things (Philippians 4:8). While elsewhere he admonishes his readers to be excellent in what is good but innocent in evil (Romans 16:19).
To a native speaker of Hebrew or Aramaic, the name Topheth probably meant Drums, or Sound Of Breaking, or Fire Place. For a meaning of the name Topheth, NOBSE Study Bible Name List has Altar and Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names proposes Place Of Burning. BDB Theological Dictionary declares the "etymology doubtful" but also endorses the association with the Aramaic Fire-Place.