Session 10 THE DEATH OF JUDAS
HINNOM, POTSHERD GATE, TOPHETH:
WHERE ARE THESE LOCATIONS?
The Lord’s instructions to Jeremiah, 19:2 (ESV): “and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you.” Jeremiah 19:14: “Then Jeremiah came from Topheth, where the Lord had sent him to prophesy, and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house…”
The map in Session 9 shows the Valley of Hinnom on the south side of the old city of Jerusalem. It has over the centuries had several names: Ben Hinnom Valley (“son of Hinnom Valley”), Gehenna Valley, and even “the valley of the children of Hinnom” in the King James Bible! It is more like a large ravine than a valley, but the location is not in doubt. In ancient times, the Hinnom Valley was the garbage dump of the city! Because trash was being burned 24/7, the valley trash dump was termed “Gehenna,” and this became a symbol of the eternal fires of hell for Judaism and Christians.
If you look closely at the Session 9 map, you will see a darkened area which runs from the west side of the Temple Mount in a southeasterly direction in order to enter the Hinnom Valley near its junction with the Kidron Valley on the southeast side of the Temple. At Jeremiah’s time, this was the Tyropean or “Cheesemaker’s” Valley, a name given to it by Josephus, the first century historian. Although the name “Tyropean” does not appear in the Bible, its description is in Joshua 15:8.1
The area at the base of the Tyropean Valley is the likely location of the Potsherd Gate, although we do not know for sure. It was a gate which the rabbis tell us was on the south side of the city and led to the Hinnom Valley. It is likely that the Potsherd Gate was frequented by those wishing to visit the pool of Siloam or to dispose of their trash.
Topheth (also Tophet) (תוֹפֶת), based mostly on Jeremiah’s description, is a location within the Hinnom Valley itself. Although some believe it is a synonym for the entire valley, it is more likely a specific worship place within the Valley of Hinnom.2
WHAT IS GOING ON IN THIS VALLEY?
Beside the burning of garbage in the Valley of Hinnom, there were nefarious activities taking place in this valley! Scholars argue about where the practice originated,3 but the Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom was a place where Jews were sacrificing their children to the heathen god Molech, and burying their little bodies in the valley.
Evidence of such a practice clearly shows itself because God condemned multiple times in the Old Testament the burning of children as a sacrifice! 2 Kings 16:3, ESV: “…but he (King Ahaz) walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” Ahaz, you may recall, was the intractable idiot-King of the northern kingdom who was hell-bent to make an alliance with Syria against the Assyrian army. Isaiah said “Don’t do it” but Ahaz wouldn’t listen, and therefore, in Isaiah 7 when Ahaz refused to ask God for proof of what he ought to do, God spoke through Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” But no—Ahaz would rather burn his own child to a heathen god than listen to God’s promise of protection!
Those wishing additional information both Biblical and non-Biblical may consult this on-line site: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-cult-of-moloch.
God had not been wishy-washy about this practice. In nearly two dozen places, the condemnation is strong enough to buckle the knees of the righteous:
[Examples, all ESV] Deuteronomy 12:31 “ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” Ezekiel 16:20-21 “ And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” Leviticus 20:1-3 “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name.”
God condemned it, but this abhorrent practice had been going on in the Hinnom Valley for many centuries. It seems to have ended with the Babylonian Captivity predicted by the prophet Jeremiah.
1 Wilkinson describes the Tyropean Valley thusly: During the time of Jesus, when the visitor was going to the pool of Siloam [find on the map from session 9], he would make his approach “by descending a stepped street in the Tyropoeon [sic] Valley. The street runs along the side of the pool and, as it does so, descends steeply, going down 8 metres (26 feet) in a horizontal distance of about 25 metres (82 feet), a gradient of one in three.” Wilkinson, John. Jerusalem as Jesus Knew It; Archaeology as Evidence. London: Thomas and Hudson, Ltd., 1978. See page 105f. Today this Tyropean Valley no longer exists; it has been filled in with trash and debris, forming a flat plain across the central part of Jerusalem.
2 The name “Tophet” seems to be a designation for a location for the burning of children alive in the arms of the god Molech. M.G. Eason, Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (3rd ed.), London: T. Nelson & Sons, 1897 (public domain) suggests the following: [Topheth, from Heb. Toph. (תוף), “a drum,” because the cries of children here sacrificed by the priests of Moloch were drowned by the noise of such an instrument; or from taph or toph, meaning “to burn,” and hence a place of burning, the name of a particular part in the valley of Hinnom.] For a more complete discussion of whether or not the Phoenicians sacrificed children in Tophets around the Mediterranean see https://phoenicia.org/childsacrifice.html. 2 Kings 23:10 seems to indicate strongly that the Tophet at Jerusalem was a child-sacrifice location. The indisputable fact is that Tophets served as burial sites throughout the Mediterranean. (Keep this in mind as we return to Matthew and the “Potter’s Field.” Are you starting to see where this is going?) Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1st edition 1907, p. 1064, lists these Hebrews letters (תוף) as “spit” and therefore implying “shame.” Certainly the shame surrounding this practice would lend itself to this apparent coincidence!
3 Some believe that this practice among the Jews was borrowed from the Canaanites which were left in the Holy Land after Joshua’s conquest. Others think that the seafaring Phoenicians spread this practice throughout the Mediterranean, and the Carthaginians in North Africa have also been credited with the practice. Psalm 106:38 seems to answer the question sufficiently for our purposes, crediting Canaanites with originating the worship of the god Molech in Palestine: “they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.” (ESV)