The Isaiah Project: Chapter 34, or, The Valley of Hinnom
Today's chapter deals with some quite difficult themes. I hope you will find them edifying, but please be advised that the translation and meditation which follow are very heavy and potentially upsetting.The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 34
1. Come close, nations, so you can hear. Peoples, mark my words. Let the Earth hear, and everything that fills it; the world and everything emerging from it.
2. God has a rankling grudge against all the nations, and a burning rage against all their legions: he has exterminated them, given them up for butchery.
3. Their casualties will be sent away, and out of their corpses a stench will arise, and mountains will be dripping, awash with their blood.
4. And all the legions of the heavens will be dissolved, and like a scroll the heavens will be rolled up, and all the legions will wither away like the foliage withers from off the vine; like a fig falling from a fig tree.
5. Because my blade has slaked its thirst in heaven — look: it will descend upon Edom and upon the people of my prohibition for the sake of justice.
6. God has a blade which is covered in blood; it is glutted with the fat and with the blood of goats and of lambs, with the kidney-fat of rams: yes, a sacrifice is God’s in Bozrah, and a massive slaughter in the land of Edom.
7. And the proud bulls will go down with them, and with the bulls, the steers. And their territory will slake its thirst for blood, and their dust will be glutted with fat.
8. Because the day of revenge belongs to God — the year to settle the score on Zion's lawsuit.
9. Her waterways will be transformed into molten tar, and her dust into sulfurous resin, and her territory will be blazing tar.
10. Neither by night nor by day will it be extinguished. Its smoke will float upwards for all time; from generation to generation it will lie in ruin — until forever and forever not one person will pass through.
11. But pelicans and bitterns will occupy it; owls and ravens will nest in it. He will stretch the boundary of the void around it, and the borderstones of the great nothing.
12. When they call its nobles to the kingdom there will be none there, and all its elites will come to nothing.
13. In her citadels, thorns will sprout up. Nettles and briars in her strongholds, and they’ll be a habitat for writhing monsters, a domain for owls.
14. Desert wildlings will rub shoulders with island creatures; shaggy beasts will call out to their companions; night terrors will make a home for themselves there and find a place of rest.
15. Arrowsnakes will nest there -- will lay eggs, will hatch, will lurk in the shadows. There too the vultures will be gathered, each female with its mate.
16. Go look for answers from the pages of God’s book. Read it aloud: not one of them will fail; no female will lack a mate: the order comes from my mouth, and my breath gathers them together.
17. And he cast their lot, and his hand distributed to each of them measure by measure; for all of time they will occupy it; generation after generation they will rest there.
Outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem, there was a valley called Hinnom. It was an execrable place. Its name then was like the name Auschwitz-Birkenau today: the very sound of it called forth memories of horrors so twisted that they pass description. This was the valley where the worshippers of Moloch made their sacrifices.
Moloch was a rival god, a false god, who competed with the one God of Israel. Moloch's followers came from among the foreign nations at constant war with the Jews, especially from the Ammonites of Canaan. Those who worshipped Moloch did so by immolating their infant children in sacrifice (see 2 Kings 17:17, 21:6; Jeremiah 32:35).* This gruesome display of fealty showed that the suppliants honored Moloch above all. Hinnom is where their children wept as they burned.
The true God, Yahweh, once seemed to ask for child sacrifice too -- he called on his first chosen servant, Abraham, to kill his son, Isaac. But as every Jew knows well, God held back Abraham's hand at the last minute. It may be that in doing so, Yahweh was distinguishing himself from Moloch as the Lord of Life and not of death. God did demand that Abraham show himself willing to surrender what was most dear to him. But Yahweh revealed in the crucial moment that this demonstration of loyalty must not come at the expense of another's involuntary death. No matter how young or vulnerable, every individual's life belongs involately to that individual by decree of God Most High. To take Isaac's life without his consent as a way of honoring Yahweh would therefore amount to a contradiction in terms.
From then on, the Jews defined themselves as those who did not do what was done in the Valley of Hinnom -- as those who worshipped Yahweh and not Moloch. If any Jewish parent did stray from this path and put his own son to death, this was regarded as the most hideous kind of betrayal and apostasy (see 2 Kings 17:17, Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; Jeremiah 7:31-2, 32:35). That is why, as the Jews took possession of Jerusalem, Hinnom became the dumping ground where the remains of executed criminals were burned. It was a place for disposing of the worst kind of evil, for obliterating and forgetting the foul garbage of sin. The New Tetstament name for this place of perpetual fire -- the Greek transliteration of Hinnom's Aramaic title -- is Gehenna. And it is Gehenna to which Jesus constantly refers as a metaphor for hell.
In this chapter of Isaiah, the foreign nations who will soon conquer Jerusalem are consigned to a terrible judgment at the end of days. Verse 3: 'out of their corpses a stench will arise, and mountains will be dripping, awash with their blood.' The language here is gruesome and shocking. If our sensibilites are offended, that is by design: Isaiah wishes to depict mutilation and suffering on an appalling scale. A few chapters ago, at 30:33, the prophet declared that the location of this awful and enduring punishment would be none other than Hinnom.**
I make this point as a way of suggesting some inroads into reading these portions of Isaiah, which are admittedly jarring for those of us who know the tender love of God. If God is 'merciful and gracious, . . . abounding in steadfast love' (Nehemiah 9:31; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:5; Joel 2:13), then what are we to make of these fearsome Isaianic invectives? We who know the infinitude of God's forgiveness -- what are we to make of hell?
I cannot answer those questions in full. What I do observe is that God, having chosen the Jews as his people, used the particular realities of their history and geography as symbols of eternal truths. Once the Israelites were claimed as God's, then by definition the 'nations,' those other peoples from outside the chosen land, beecame representatives of all who reject the true God and worship the darkness that is foreign to Him. Gehenna stood as a physical reminder of the fire that would consume Moloch and anyone who bowed at his terrible sacrifices.
I wrote last week that, but for the grace of the Messiah, we are all those foreigners excluded from the kingdom of God. I want to suggest this week that we all have lodged deep within us a Valley of Hinnom, a Valley of the Shadow of Death. I invoked Auschwitz at the beginning of this essay advisedly: the Holocaust is a potent reminder that we moderns, no less than the ancient Ammonites, are perfectly capable of pledging allegiance to those dark gods whose only pleasure is in the smell of burning and the sound of screams.
God promises again and again in Isaiah that he will visit destruction upon the empty gods and foreign nations in the Valley of Hinnom. He will descend from on high and eradicate the stronghold of the wicked, consigning it to perpetual obliteration: 'from generation to generation it will lie in ruin' (verse 10). This, I fully believe, is true, and I believe that because I believe God is good. No such God could abide the ongoing slaughter of innocents and the perpetual rule of sin throughout the world. God, in this sense, could not be a God of love if he were not also a God of judgment.
And so I do believe that God shall descend to annihilate Moloch and wipe out the abominable things we do in his name. And yet, if we ask, he will rescue us from that annihilation -- will expunge the part of us that lives in the grim valley and preserve what remains in an as-yet unimaginably glorious form. He will walk on his own two feet into the Valley of Hinnom, and he will not leave until he has carried out on his shoulders the redeemed body of every slaughtered baby and every murdered victim. If you ask, he will carry you, too.
*Moloch is often associated with Ba'al -- both names mean something like 'Lord' or 'Master.'
**In Isaiah 30, the name used for Hinnom is Topheth, an alternative appelation whose Hebrew roots suggest connotations of shame and burning.