A First Time Visitors Impression of Israel
The Day I Went to Hell
Today I visited the Hell of the Bible. That might seem like a startling statement to some. I'm sure there are many people who will not agree with what I have to say. But then no one has to. In order to explain my thoughts and experiences today, I need to give some background.
When Jesus spoke of hell, he was talking about a specific place. The Greek word he used was Gehenna. Any Bible scholar worth his salt knows that this is a reference to the valley of Hinnom, a specific location just south of the old city of Jerusalem. But something goes haywire when they try to formulate doctrine on the subject of hell. In the centuries that have passed since Jesus spoke those words, theologians have been playing with the words and their meanings and they have concocted a doctrine that neither Jesus nor the Apostles would have recognized concerning heaven and hell and the immortal soul, etc. The significance of this place has been lost in the midst of this doctrinal manipulation. This corrupted teaching (bogus as it is) pervades modern Christianity today.
The history of this place first begins when the Isrealites conquered the land of Canaan and drove out the Canaanites. This valley had been occupied by the sons of Hinnom who had used it as a place of human sacrifice. They offered up their children here by "passing them through the fire to Molech". Sadly, the many Israelites took up this same custom, and they were severely chastised by God for it. Gehenna was lined with the burial places of these unfortunate children. Generations later, the place was still in use as a place of burial, apparently for criminals and other disenfranchised individuals. Many caves and tombs are still in evidence today. The place was referred to as Tophet by the prophet Jeremiah. He cursed this parcel of land because of its defilement and it became a refuse dump where the dead bodies of criminals would be left unburied to decay and be eaten by worms and animals. It was a place where the "worm dieth not". Those worms that did not die were the maggots that fed on the dead bodies. They did not die. Instead, they were transformed into flies.
Fires burned continually in those times. The fires of the burning refuse burned pretty much without ceasing and the smoke was always rising from that area ("ascendeth for ever and ever" is the way it comes across in English Bibles). In time, Gehenna became a powerful metaphor for the way of sin and death, the "broad way that leads to destruction" in Jesus' teaching. Unfortunately, in traditional Christian teaching. There has been a certain de-emphasis of the social and legal aspects of Jesus' teaching and the normal penalties that come from violation of the law, including death in some cases. In its place his teachings have come to be applied to people who are bad or unsaved. The predjudice of Bible translators has contributed to this situation. So, it is difficult to read the New Testament in English and grasp the original intent of its writers.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man has been used by the evangelists to paint lurid pictures of eternal torture in a place of flames and punishment. But these people, though sincere, don't have a clue about the real meaning that was intended by Jesus. Though secondary to that issue here, Jesus had a specific rich man in mind here (from the Bible), a beggar named Lazarus both of which were associated with Abraham, who is mentioned by name in the parable. Jesus never intended for the interpretationto be used in the literal manner it is being used by todays evangelists to paint a very twisted and inaccurate picture of divine justice. But that explanation will have to wait because I want to focus here in on my first hand experiences with this place of death. Look for an upcoming article to explain this parable.
I went to visit this Valley of Hinnom to see what it was like. This valley stretches along the south side of the old city of Jerusalem and is a well known part of the modern city of Jerusalem. As I approached Hinnom from the West I passed new modern construction that was taken place alongside older established buildings. My first sight of the valley was through a nice garden Just south of the Jaffa Gate to the old city. The valley opened into a broad grassy plain which was well kept with a manmade stone stage structure that had an opening excavated below it that looked to be some kind of storage area. The grassy area panned out from the stage to cover several acres that were lightly terraced with Jerusalem limestone. The place had been expertly landscaped into an ampitheater where concerts and other events could be held. The place was deserted but the sound of traffic nearby belied its isolation. To the east of the ampitheatre was a stone wall that supported a heavily travelled roadway in Jerusalem.
There was a sizeable tunnel below that allowed me to cross under the roadway to enter the main part of Hinnom. The peaceful scene that greeted me was that of a beautiful landscaped garden. A small sign identified it as a national park. The was a nice open green with an occasional ancient olive tree. Along the sides of the valley were rock escarpments that held an occasional tomb-cave. There were planted garden areas surrounding the green. As the valley deepened, a white limestone building rested along the north side. This modern building housed a music conservatory for young Isrealis. I had been completely alone in this peaceful place for a while, but I gradually became aware that there were others in the park. An Arab man with two small boys were mounting a pair of donkeys. They headed up the hillside toward the Jaffa gate, probably going to allow themselves to be photographed by tourists visiting there for the Easter holiday. It is also the Passover holiday here for eight days. Everywhere you hear the greeting "Hag samea". It means happy holiday. You here it in Israel like you hear "Merry Christmas" in the U.S.
I continued my walk down into the valley into a part that had not been maintained. There was condiderable litter present showing that the ancient practice of dumping refuse in this accursed place is still practiced. The rock cliffs grew higher and higher and the number of caves increased as did the litter. I was well into the domain of the Arab villages now that surround Jerusalem on the south. There is a clear line of demarcation between Isreali care and maintenance of the land and what I saw here. The Isreali's love of the land seems to be reflected in the dressing and keeping of it. One gets the feeling that many of the Arabs seem to take it for granted and do not always maintain it well. I admit, however, that this may be a prejudicial opinion on my part. It may be that they simply don't have jurisdiction over areas such as this.
I came to a poorly maintained road that I followed further and steeper down into the valley. There were now climbers rappelling on the cliffs that bordered the valley. There was some kind of panel truck parked there with flasher lights on top and a starlike official emblem on the side of the door. I was not able to interpret the Hebrew writing but I took this to be some kind of training exercise for an emergency rescue unit.
Approaching me on the road was a group of young Arab boys. I knew that I was about to be accosted by the dreaded scourge of the tourists (or so I had been told) - young boys begging for money. They greeted me cheerfully in broken English. Very soon their hands were all open, as were their mouths, each asking me for a shekel. They each thrust an upturned hand within about an inch of my face. They reminded me of a nest full of hungry birds clamoring for the next worm. These boys know how to be cute but they really can be pests. I knew I had some small change in my pocket but I didn't have a sheckel for each of them. I had heard tales of these young beggars who were able to distract you while one of their number picks your pocket. I kept manuvering to prevent any of them from getting behind me,but they did not seem to be trying to do so. I pulled the change from my pocket and picked out 5 of the least valuable coins. I had a couple of 10 agarot coins worth about 3 cents, a couple of half sheckels and a single sheckel coin. At the sight of the coins, the clamoring became more intense, each of them looking for an opportunity to take all of the coins at the expense of his friends.
Of course, there was no way to divide them equitably so I tossed the coins up into the air some distance away and they dove immediately to the ground grabbing for the money. I took the opportunity to distance myself from them and I then laughed at them and took a their picture. I did not see who got the money. But as I left three were climbing up the hill and two were still looking intently around the ground. I suspected that they were the ones who lost out. I look back on that as a pleasant and entertaining experience.
I am beginning to see that everything I have heard about the Arabs is not true. In the U.S. there seems to be a general prejudice against the Arabs in favor of the Israelis. The Arabs are stereotyped as cunning, violent, thieving, lazy, deceitful, and dirty. I am beginning to see that is in no way the truth. Those boys were clean, friendly, well dressed, and I do not believe they had any thought of picking my pocket. Begging sheckels seems to be a sport rather than a practice driven by poverty or need. A couple of days later I was beset by young boys begging in the old city. One boy eyed the pencils in my pocket and ask if he could have them. I said no because I needed them. He said he needed them for his school. I gave him a sheckel. He then looked disappointed, and asked me for ten sheckles. I chuckled and walked away.
A later time I suddenly turned a corner and there was a pretty young Arab girl about 8 or 9. She looked at me shyly and said "Sheckel?" Before I could respond or before I even realized what she said, she seemed smitten by embarrasment. She tucked her head and looked away and walked off. I expect that her behavior, though cute, would have been frowned upon by her parents who were probably Muslim. Overall I have found the Arab children to be quite pleasant and friendly. I had occasion to be in a school yard. There I saw Arab boys of high school age laughing and holding hands or walking with their arms around each other. They seem to be much more open about showing affection than teenagers in our society. They seem not to have the hardness and macho that so characterizes American high schoolers.
I encountered a pair of Arab teenagers on an isolated back street in the old city. I was trying to find my way to the Dome of the Rock, but I was actually lost and it must have shown on my face. One of them asked me in almost incomprehensible English what I was looking for. I told him and he looked at his friend with a mischievous grin. He held out his hand and said "ten sheckels". I pulled out a 10 sheckel coin and handed it to him. He chuckled and pushed it away. He was just having some fun with me. He proceeded to give me directions. I thanked him and walked off in the direction he pointed. It turned out that I could not get in to the Dome of the Rock by the way that he sent me however. I was stopped by guards at the entrance (who spoke no English). Only Arabs were allowed to enter there, no tourists.
Of course, the street vendors are very aggressive and their sales techniques seem to border on larcenous, but that is how it is done there. They can be annoying and exasperating if you don't like bargaining. I will say however that some of the warmest and most helpful people I met were Arabs. Like any other group of people, they are all different. They heve the same concerns that we have. They talk about family and peace and values and principles. They usually don't burden American tourists with political talk. They want us to have a good time and spend our money.
Well, by now I had descended several hundred feet in altitude. I was approaching the Arab village of Abu Tor. I could see Arab houses lining the whole side of the mountain across the Kidron valley just below me. I began to realize just how deep I was and that the only was out was up. I might have done well to turn around the was I came in, but I am averse to go back over the ground twice when I could learn something about the road ahead of me. So I started up the hill to the North into an Arab neighborhood. I could see the Crusaders wall at the top of the hill about a mile away, but it was a steep climb and even then I didn't know how far I would have to walk around it to get to what I recognized as civilization, some place with water and shade to sit in.
Water was becoming important. I had not planned well enough and I had just polished off the last of the bottle I had brought along and I was still very thirsty and becoming overheated. I continued to climb, but my pace was slow and my thirst was increasing. I had thoughts that I could really be in trouble though I was really just very uncomfortable at the moment. I finally stopped beside a wall that lined the street, where there was a little shade. I must have been looking pretty haggard. An Arab man about 30 came out of his house across the street and walked over to me and said "haloo" they way they often do in Jerusalem. He asked me where I was from. He did not recognize the town and he asked me if it was near Los Angeles or Chicago. When I told him Dallas was nearby he seemed satisfied. He then invited me to come to his house and get some water and rest for a while. I was apprehensive because I had heard warnings about the water and food around the old city and in the Arab villages, but I was ready to accept his offer.
I have heard that an Arab values the virtue of hospitality because of the example of his forefather Abraham. In the Talmud and in other works of Jewish antiquity, as well as in the Koran, Abraham was said to have kept his tent open from all sides to welcome and entertain weary travellers as he did for the angels and the Lord himself as they were on the way to destroy Sodom and Ammorha in the Bible. I understood that this man was now offering to help me in this same tradition. I'm sure his famous ancester would have been well pleased with him. And I was deeply moved by his kindness. I would never regard the Arabs in quite the same way after that day. I was later to learn from other experiences over the next few days that they can be very fine people of great warmth, sincerity and compassion.
But at that moment a taxi driver passed by and stopped to ask if I needed a ride. I accepted and thanked the stranger for his offer of hospitality and shook his hand. Once in the car we were off like a shot. I hadn't had time to even tell him where I wanted to go so that I could ask him in advance what the fare would be - a wise precaution, especially when dealing with these independent unregulated cab drivers. I was bordering on becoming sick from the heat so I asked him to take me to the nearest place where I could by a soft drink. In about 3 minutes he had me to an Arab drink stand by the side of the road. I paid 5 sheckels for a barely chilled diet coke (the going rate is 4) but I didn't haggle.
The driver was a an outgoing Arab whose name was Mike (go figure). He was full of plans of how he could take me all over town. We could go to the Mount of Olives, and the Old City, and all the holy sites (zeh zeh zeh zeh zeh...an expression the Isrealis use all the time to express an undefined series of things. It means this, this, this, this...). He was still being very evasive about what he would charge me and I was still being insistent that he tell me what this ride was going to cost. I'm sure he was trying to just figure how much he could take me for. I told him that I wasn't feeling well and I just wanted to go to my hotel. He reluctantly agreed but then quickly proceeded to plan a trip for me for the next day. He wanted to spend the whole day as my personal driver and take me to the Dead Sea, Qumran, Ein Gedi, Jericho, etc. for only $120. I would like to take just such a trip in a day or two, and the fare would have been worth it, but I felt I could probably get a better deal. So I didn't commit. I just took his phone number. By the time we got near the Hotel, he had fixed on 35-40 sheckles for the fare - "or you don't have to pay me if you don't want to", he said. It happened I had exactly 35 sheckels in my pocket in coins, so I gave it to him and left.
I have heard a couple of surprising words coming from Arabs that I only expected to hear from the Spanish. Those two words are "gracias" and "gringo". For a time, the Arab Moors invaded and controlled Spain, so I expect these word are just part of the heritage they left behind.
As I walked in the lobby of the hotel, I was greeted by another, more low key Arab cab driver named Hussein, who said he had seen me in the valley of Hinnom earlier today. We talked for a while and he also offered his services to me for the coming days. His prices seemed reasonable and I took his phone number.
So all in all it has been a very exhausting day, full of interesting experiences. I looked at my map and realized that the hill I was trying to clinb was the hill called Ophel that is the very hill on which the original site of Jerusalem was located and which King David founded. It is now an Arab village and is known as The City of David. Its defencibility is part of a very interesting story that is related to its geography, and the difficulty an army would have storming that hill, especially with arrows, stones and spears raining down. My difficulties drove home to me the signifigance of that story. But that is yet another story that I will have to tell later.
So if I had to summarize the day's experiences in a few words, I would say: It's a lot easier getting into Hell than it is to leave.
(c) Copyright 1998 by Wayne Simpson
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