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
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
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
Distributed by Biblical Research Foundation
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