I have long wanted to do a little work to debunk the endlessly repeated myth that the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna) was a perpetually burning trash dump. There simply is no evidence to support the idea, but because it seems a reasonable explanation for the origin of the Hinnom Valley as “hell,” writers and preachers accept and propagate the story.
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.
Then he quotes Peter Head, G. R. Beasley-Murray, and Lloyd Bailey in tracing the origin of this notion to Rabbi David Kimchi in AD 1200. Specifically, Bailey states:
[Kimchi] 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.
As with the legend about the rope around the high priest’s ankle, this popular myth seems to have originated in Jewish circles in the Middle Ages. McBride has more details and the sources in his post.
The explanation for the “fire of Gehenna” lies not in a burning trash dump, but in the burning of sacrificed children. Jeremiah is explicit that such occurred here:
Jeremiah 7:31–32 (ESV) — And 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, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere.
Isaiah had already envisioned Topheth as the fiery destiny of an enemy of God.
Isaiah 30:33 (HCSB) — Indeed! Topheth has been ready for the king for a long time now. His funeral pyre is deep and wide, with plenty of fire and wood. The breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, kindles it.
Thus already in Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked. That the valley was just outside the city of Jerusalem made it an appropriate symbol for those excluded from divine blessing. Isaiah closes his book with these words:
Isaiah 66:24 (ESV) — “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
It is not difficult to see, from these and other texts (e.g., 2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Chr 28:3, 33:6; Jer 32:35), why Jesus and his contemporaries used the word Gehenna (“valley of Hinnom”) as synonymous with the place of everlasting fiery torment. Indeed, there is no reason to search further for ancient burning piles of discarded newspapers, product packaging, and junk mail.
UPDATE (4/29): The views of various scholars on the matter is presented in a new post.