A walk through the green and tranquil Valley of Hinnom, below Jerusalem’s Old City walls, reveals beautiful views and some dark tales, too.
“Every valley shall be raised up ... and the glory of the LORD will be revealed ...” (Isaiah 40:4-5)
It’s not easy to find something good to say about the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem, whose bad press from biblical days has followed it down through the ages. After all, it was here, right around the corner from the First Temple, that the people of Judah offered their children to the fire god Molech and to Ba’al (Jer. 7:31; 32:35), for which, Jeremiah warned them, they would pay with the destruction of the Temple and exile.
The full name of this low-lying land is the Valley of the Son of Hinnom – whoever that may have been. Knowing nothing about either son or father, we can only conjecture that Hinnom probably bequeathed his son some rather fertile farmland in this valley that surrounds old Jerusalem on the southwest. The valley’s name in Hebrew is Gei Ben-Hinnom or simply Gei-Hinnom. In light of the sacrifices to the fire god, the latter name gave rise to the word “Gehenna,” which over time became a synonym for hell. Early Jewish sages saw Isaiah 31:9, which speaks of God’s “fire is in Zion” and “furnace in Jerusalem,” as a reference to this valley, which they described as the gates of hell. The valley’s other biblical name, Topheth, means inferno, adding to its image as a place of eternal torment.
On a more positive note, when the people of Judah returned from exile in around 538 BCE, according to Nehemiah, they took up “living all the way from Beer Sheva to the Valley of Hinnom” (11:29).
But the bad news continues. In the New Testament, this was the place where the chief priests bought a potters field with Judas Iscariot’s infamous 30 pieces of silver. Not wanting to keep the money, they decided to use it to buy a burial place for foreigners. “That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day” (Matt. 27:6-8). The version of the story in Acts turns quite gory: “With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood”(1:18-19).
Bad press or not, the Valley of Hinnom is a big part of the history of Jerusalem. And despite what you may imagine from the grim description above, it also makes for one of the most picturesque walks you can take in the Holy City.
Begin your walk at the Scottish Church overlooking the Hinnom Valley. The church, which has a lovely guesthouse, was built in 1927 as a memorial to Scottish soldiers who died fighting in this region during World War I. The church sits on a hill where one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem was made: a series of nine burial caves that had escaped looters because their ceilings had collapsed. In the early 1980s, Bar-Ilan University Professor Gabi Barkay and his team discovered hundreds of items that had been buried along with the deceased, apparently after the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. Perhaps the most precious find was two tiny silver scrolls inscribed with the blessing from Numbers 6:24-26:
''The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace.''
The road down into the valley crosses a bridge built in the 16th century. On your left is Sultan’s Pool, a huge reservoir actually built by Herod the Great, but reconstructed in the early 16th century by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who also built Jerusalem’s walls. A water fountain dating from 1536 boasts an inscription praising Suleiman for his generosity to thirsty Jerusalemites.
To continue your stroll through Gehenna, head down into the depths of the valley past yawning caves that contain many tombs, some of which were inhabited by monks over the centuries. Somewhat bizarrely, until recently when the Israel Nature and Parks declared it off limits for X-treme sports-lovers, Jerusalemites could be found here testing their rappelling skills.
But going back to the monastic life, the centerpiece of a visit to the Valley of Hinnom is the Convent of Akeldema, which is the Aramaic word for “Field of Blood,” bringing us back to the New Testament story quoted above. According to tradition, the convent (open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. - noon and 4 p.m. - 7 p.m.) is built over the site where tradition says Judas hanged himself. Dedicated to the fourth-century monk St. Onophrios, the convent’s sunny courtyards, rebuilt over earlier ruins in 1874, have a wonderful view of the Mount of Olives and the Judean Desert.
Your visit to Gehenna ends on a note of healing: Just around the corner from the convent is the Pool of Siloam. There, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the Second Temple pool where Jesus told a blind man to wash to restore his sight (John 9:1-11). Beyond it lies the City of David, with many more treasures to explore.