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The title of this post seems particularly harsh and seemingly evil, and as such allow me to explain. The name of the actual location we visited in the Hebrew is derived in several ways, including 1) GeHinnom; 2) the Valley of the Hinnom; 3) the Valley of Ben Hinnom; 4) Gai Ben-Hinnom; and finally, in the Greek loaning from Hebrew of the New Testament, 5) Gehenna. And, in the (much, much later) imprecise use of the English language, it was translated as Hell. In fact, “English” is not really the source of the word, because it is actually the ancient Germanic root word ‘*heljah’ (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), and it has the general meaning “hidden from sight, unable to be seen, away from looking.” This is actually the same root word for modern English words such as “helmet” which, if one considers it, makes a lot of sense: a helmet is a head-covering whose express use is to make the head hidden from site (and ideally, danger).

So whats the story behind the Valley of Ben Hinnom? This is important, because if this is the place that Jesus referenced, it is important to have some idea of the intended meaning in the original language and not be caught up in the added meanings from later translations. Therefore, as I have looked into this thus far (because, as one might recall, my independent study this semester is about the etymology of Hell and how it managed to get derived from “Gehenna” in the New Testament), here is the basic story behind GeHinnom of the Old Testament period. Referenced several times, such as in Joshua, this place was known in the time of the Israelites as the ancient location (preceding the existence of Jerusalem by hundreds of years) of multiple child sacrifices to the pagan god Molech. It is important to note here that Molech (or Moloch, or Molek as it is variously spelled) may be better known to you as Ba’al, the same pagan god whose priests persecuted Elijah and so forth. In fact, it is also very important to mention that this god was known to be associated with fire/sacrifices by fire, and so keep in mind that the real life location upon which Hell is based on originally had a (pagan) sense of fire about it.

The reputation of this small valley beneath Mount Zion didn’t improve so much over hundreds of years; upon the construction of Jerusalem by the Israelites, they made sure not to build anything in the valley, and in fact they continued the tradition of fire being associated with the place, as they burned the garbage, bodies of dead criminals, and bodies of dead animals from Jerusalem in the Hinnom. Somewhat later, non-criminals were buried in the walls of the cliffs in the Valley, and this in turn started another trend for this small piece of land. As such, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and buried many of their dead in the same cliff walls of the same Valley.

At this point, it is important to mention (briefly) the other languages and expressions involved in the transformation from Gehenna to Hell. Prior to Hinnom acquiring the connotations of fire, sacrifice, and death that it got, there existed the Jewish concept of Sheol, which is simply a repository for the dead without having specific moral connotations (so it wasn’t just for the righteous, nor only for the unrighteous). This was a concept of the afterlife, whereas Gehenna was a real place right next to Jerusalem. Interesting enough, Greek pagan tradition also holds that Hades is a morality-free repository for the dead.

This continues in the Roman pagan traditions, which hold that the whole of the underworld, infernus, was the location of the dead, both good and evil. How does this figure? The name of this abode for the dead is derived from Latin for “the dead,” inferi. They went further, splitting this abode of the dead into Tartarus for the unrighteous and elysium for those who lived a good life. This underworld should sound very familiar, as infernus is the root word in English and Italian for “inferno,” which refers to a huge conflagration and Hell, respectively. Even more clearly, the English adjective “infernal” is drawn from the same root word, and it specifically refers to something as being from/of/like Hell. This should also alert a person to the beginning of a change in meaning; infernus is directly drawn from Latin for “the dead,” and yet later English translations into “Hell” have the connotation of fire and immense heat, hence the uses in English and Italian.

Then, of course, where does “Hell” itself originally come from anyways? As was briefly mentioned above, there is a good case for Hell coming from proto-Germanic ‘*heljah’ and as such, one sees two different possible interpretations of it from the very beginning. If words drawn from this root have the direct implication of something hidden, something out of sight, something unable to be seen, one way to interpret Hell is that it is analogous to Hades and infernus in that it is a hidden repository of the dead, sans impression of eternal fire and suffering. A second way to interpret it (the popular conception) is the fiery inferno of Dante and Faust, yet this imagery doesn’t find very much of a basis in the Bible, interestingly enough.

So where does this meaning of fire and punishment of the wicked come in? How is it that we now have the meanings and connotations of Hell that we have today? I can give you a very preliminary and several-part answer: 1) the probable influence of the remnants of pagan religions in and around Europe upon different Christian theologians; 2) specific schools of thought in very early Christianity (only a minority of them, it would seem, but more on this later); and 3) popular literature (Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost).

I cannot yet finish this post all the way, as my research for this study is on hold so I can finish my 30 page paper on Anwar El-Sadat first. As such, this post doesn’t even begin to go into the details of how Hell got the meanings it has today in direct opposition to what is said in the Bible (the properly translated Bible, mind you). That said, all of this entry-level understanding stands to be transformed into a fairly interesting independent study this semester, and I hope to post my finished paper on the blog once it is finished (and hopefully published). At the same time, if my continued research contradicts something I said here, I will come back and edit it rather than post the new information in a separate post.

The below photographs (the first 17 at least) highlight my trip with Théo into Hinnom. We walked over to Mount Zion through the Old City, and Théo pointed out that the Zion Gate of the city is so pocked and ruined not from age (what sort of rain falls horizontally into a wall, right?), but from bullet holes… which he is probably correct about. Jerusalem is nothing if not the most coveted piece of real estate continuously through history. We walked down into the Valley and through it, and it wasn’t quite so hot as popular conception would hold, and I will go as far as to say that Hell is kind of a nice place, in reality. Its free from any buildings or development (for now, as one of the photographs shows the intention of the city to develop this area), and is just like any other park, except for the thousands of years of attached history and meaning.

Lucifer (another great exercise in creative and warped translation, as lucifer is Latin for “falling light” or “morning star,” from the Hebrew for “morning star” and not necessarily a name as is usually regarded. In fact, in the Bible, the linked passage from Isaiah seems to indicate a Satan-like figure in character, but “Lucifer” itself can not be considered a name from the Bible as it is the Latin translation. This massive parenthetical comment could go on to discuss “Satan” and so forth, but that shall be left for a different post [and/or academic paper topic]) was not available for comment on his domain.

And, having explained the whole of my trip into the Valley of Ben Hinnom, let me really quickly explain why there are a few followup photographs from Mount Zion. The Valley of Ben Hinnom is not the easiest to get to, as there is nothing in it and therefore no buses stop at it. That, and the fact that I wanted to show Théo some of the sites on and from Mount Zion led us to take that route, and as can be expected, one sees more of a place the second time they go. This is the source of the extra photos from the Dormition Church, and the fact that I now know that the sculpture with the three windows is a famous French work, knowledge compliments of Théo.


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