« PreviousContinue »
Jewish Usage of the Word Gehenna.
The appearance of the Rev. Mr. Balfour's Inquiry into the import of the words Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, &c. produced at the first a strong sensation, which has not yet subsided, in the public mind. It was felt by all, that the main pillars of the common doctrine of hell had been shaken, and by many, that they had been removed. Different classes of the religious community were, of course, differently affected on the occasion. The dissenters and converts from the popular system, were gratified ; its staunch adherents were alarmed.
A reply soon appeared, with considerable pomp of preparation, from a Boston clergyman; but it fell dead from the press, and was heard no more of, except through the counter-report of an answer. After an Interval, another, from the President of Bowdoin college, followed and shared the fate of its predecessor. A third, from one of the Professors at Andover, has since taken its way to Sheol. Without arrogating a right to pronounce thus summarily on the merits of the entire controversy, we may venture to say at least so much as this : that no respectable answer can be made to Mr. Balfour's work, which will subserve the doctrine of hell torments as held by the common people. Should an opponent even succeed in the final argument, still the acknowledged facts which he must concede at the outset, would
break up the popular foundation of the doctrine ; and his only expedient then would be, to shift the long settled faith of the people over to new grounds to which they have not been accustomed. A hazzardous experiment on an old doctrine! Any direct attempt at such a transfer would endanger the doctrine itself; and its friends are probably aware that if so fundamental a reform once begins, there is no judging how far it will go, nor where it will end.
It is virtually agreed by the chief controvertists on both sides, that the Hebrew Sheol, from which alone the word hell is translated in the Old Testament, and the Greek Hades, from which it is often translated in the New, signify literally the state of the dead, and nothing more. are indeed told that they may possibly have a secondary meaning ; or rather, that it would be difficult absolutely to prove that they may not, to such as are already believers in future torment. This, however, is, in plain language, a most thorough concession, that no argument can be drawn simply from these terms themselves, in favor of that doctrine, which must first be granted before they can afford it any countenance, and even then only by a possible secondary application. Such is the result, with regard to Sheol and Hades.
It is on the word Gehenna, which occurs twelve times, all in the New Testament, that the principal reliance is placed. This, it is contended, corresponds fairly enough with the term hell in our present usage.
But Mr. Balfour, on the contrary, points out the derivation of that Jewish word from the valley of Hinnom; and enters on a careful review of all the texts in which it is
found, in order to show that the inspired teachers did not employ it in the sense alleged. ponents reply, that although it originally denoted the valley of Hinnom, it had lost that signification in our Saviour's time. At this period, they assert, it had become appropriated in the current language of the Jews to the place or state of future torment; and therefore it must have been so understood when used by Christ and his apostles. We need not trace the controversy further, nor even insert the considerations by 'which Mr. Balfour sustains his cause against this argument, since his work is probably in the hands of all our readers. We wish to offer, in the first place, a reflection of our own upon the last mentioned assertion of his opponents; and then to state certain facts that seem important to the subject.
To us it appears that, whatever was the commonly received sense of the word Gehenna among the Jews at the Christian era, in about the same sense must Christ and the writers of the New Testament have expected and have meant to be understood by it; unless they introduced it either with such express cautions, or under such significant circumstances, as would naturally apprize the people of a departure from its cotemporary acceptation. Where no such warning is given, it is certainly the general rule to take words according to the established usage of the time, on what grounds soever that usage may have arisen. This may be illustrated by a case which, for all the purposes in question, is parallel. Our English word hell seems originally and by derivation to have signified only a hidden place; and
even no more than three or four centuries ago, it was currently applied to the simple state of the dead. But such is no longer the case.
In religious language, it has since become appropriated, by common custom, to a future state of torment. Now, let any preacher or theological writer of this day use the word in a sense very different, say in its original signification, and he will take care that some corresponding expression or circumstance shall prevent its being applied in the common way; but if, on the contrary, no plain notice of the kind appears, we ought in justice to understand him according to the present and established idea of the term. Whoever speaks of hell in the usual style, is supposed to mean hell in the usual sense. And if Gehenna had actually acquired, no matter on what grounds, the same meaning in our Saviour's day, it is natural so to understand it in his language and in that of the New Testament, unless we clearly discover some circumstances which were then obvious, and which would guard the people against that interpretation. Such is our inference, if we admit the assertion made by Mr. Balfour's opponents, and indeed by many standard critics.
But after all, is it a truth that Gehenna had become thus exclusively appropriated by the Jews to a future state of torment, so early as our Saviour's day? This is the question into which we mean to inquire in the present article. think that whoever follows us through, will see that the position is at least very doubtful, if it does not rest altogether on conjecture. We shall
lay before our readers all the facts, with which we are acquainted, in the case ; and these are so many and of such a character as to leave little chance for anything new to alter materially the general result. In order to present the subject in a clear light, it may be well, First, to state the derivation of Gehenna; briefly, however, since on this particular the public is already well informed through Mr. Balfour's works. Secondly, we shall point out some peculiarities worthy of notice in the form of the word ; and Thirdly, trace its usage among the Jews according to all the light antiquity affords, and endeavor to fix the earliest period at which it can, with certainty, bę pronounced to have acquired among them the sense alleged.
FIRST. Its Derivation.
Professor Stuart says, “The word Gehenna is derived, as all agree, from the Hebrew words Gee Hennom; which, in process of time passing into other languages, assumed divers forms ; for example, Chaldee Gehennom, Arabic Gahannam, Greek Gehenna. The valley of Hinnom (Gee Hennom,) is a part, (the eastern section) of the pleasant Wadi or valley, which bounds Jerusalem on the south, Josh. xv. 8; xvii. 6. Here, in ancient times, and under some of the idolatrous kings, the worship of Moloch, the horrid idol-god of the Ammonites, was practised. To this idol, children were offered in sacrifice, 2 Kings xxiii. 10. Ezek. xxiii. 37. 39. 2 Chron. xxviii. 3. Lev. xviii
. 21 ; xx. 2. If we may credit the Rabbins, the head of the idol was like that of an ox; while