Coping with Fear
Below the Old City walls in Jerusalem there is a ravine that begins as a gentle, grassy separation between hills, but then quickly descends south into the rocky earth. Eventually, the ravine becomes a steep, craggy depth, scarred on the far side by shallow caves and pits that vaunt hollowed-out chambers and narrow crypts.
Until recent years, everywhere one could see the scorches and smolder from trash fires. Rivulets of urine trickled down from open sewers at the cliffs above, watering thorn bushes, weeds and unexpected clumps of grass among the outcroppings. One could smell the stench of decaying offal, the congealed stink of putrefied garbage, and the absorbed reek of incinerated substances seared into the rock face. Crows circled low. Worms and maggots slithered throughout.
Listen. Imagine. Some cannot help but hear the tormented screams of babies being burned alive, the macabre incantations of the idolatrous in gruesome celebration, the agonized cries of helpless victims, and every other echo of death and disconsolation that dwells here so pervasively that not even the centuries can silence them.
Welcome to Hell. The real Hell. This is Jerusalem's Gei Ben Hinnom, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom. The Valley was named for an alien non-Semitic family, the Hinnom clan that predated the First Temple period and immediately established the locale as a place of abomination. Gei Ben Hinnom became Ge Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom, and eventually Gehenna in English or Gehennem in Arabic and Hebrew.
Those who walked through the Biblical "valley of the shadow of death" walked here. Images of unending torture and fire as punishment for a life of evil originated in this hideous acreage. The prophets always understood that Hell existed, not as a hidden, allegorical place deep beneath the ground maintained as a fable of fear. Hell is on Earth, just a short walk from the path of righteousness that leads to the Temple Mount.
Perhaps it is fitting that the path to Hell begins delightfully. In recent years, the northern and unoffensive length of the valley has become a zone of chic gentrification: exquisite townhomes, landscaped parks, a concert bowl at the Sultan's Pool, and movie theaters. But, as the ravine carves deeper and deeper between the rocky hills, and as it rounds the corners of Mt. Zion into East Jerusalem en route to the Arab village of Silwan, Gei Ben Hinnom conjoins with the Valley of the Kidron. Here it traverses a stretch of depth that has become a sort of urban no-man's-land in the struggle between Arab and Israeli. As land that defies political peace, this is the only part of the Valley that Arabs cannot improve and that Jews dare not.
Therefore, little has changed here for centuries. Still visible are the original, deep angular cuts into the flat scorched stone seating the infamous Tophet, created hundreds of years before Christ. Tophet altars are said to be named for the noisy drum that devotees of the mysterious Molech would beat to drown out the ghastly cries of children immolated in sacrifice before their own willing parents. In the black rapture of their misguided faith, mothers and fathers not only witnessed the sacrifice, but glorified the act. Beneath the ancient Tophet altars, one can still see foreboding square entryways barely big enough for a human torso to squeeze through. Within those dark depths lay a complex of carved-out crypts, as well as chambers for ritual preparation in honor of Molech.
Little is known about the god Molech. Some archaeologists, using Tophet models in Carthage, speculate that the Molech idol in Gei Ben Hinnom was equipped with outstretched cantilevered arms that extended a small platform upon which the innocent baby was tied. Slowly the platform would swivel toward the consuming flames as the baby shrieked in helpless agony. No wonder this most hideous place has repeatedly been the focus of Biblical wrath:
"He defiled Tophet, which is in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech." II Kings 23:10.
"Therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter." Jeremiah 19:16.
But how did a very authentic site of pagan abomination transmogrify into the concept of postmortuarial eternal punishment we call Hell? The tortuous course from reality on the ground to the murky mind of man has evolved along broken and jagged philosophical lines. Ironically, the concept of Hell developed less from the word of God, than by the mind of man. And its supposed physical locale was originally not in burning depths beneath the ground, but rather in a dark corner of heaven.- More