Jesus and Ghenna: The Seven Woes

During the last few posts, I’ve been reflecting on the way that Jesus talked about “Ghenna,” a garbage dump that was located just outside of Jerusalem. The word “Ghenna” is often translated as “hell” in English bibles.

The last, major section of scripture in which the word “Ghenna” is used is found in Matthew 23. This section of scripture contains seven woes that are directed at the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

* * *

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Ghenna as you are.

* * *

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

* * *

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Ghenna?

The seven “woes” fit perfectly with the other texts in which Jesus refers to Ghenna. After chewing on these texts during the last few weeks, I’m struck with how – in each instance – Ghenna is seen as a place where religious leaders will end up. Why? Consistently the answer is that they stand in the way of the Kingdom of God by encouraging systems of religiosity. Rather than doing justice and mercy to their fellow man, they tie their fellow man up with regulations and inordinate focus on external, ceremonial acts.

Up next: Some reflections on “Hades,” the other major word that is translated as “hell,” and how it is also tied – with even more strength – to themes of social justice. 

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