Why should a man be thrown into Gehenna for having looked lustfully at a woman?

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Ron got in touch to say that he’s persuaded by the argument that Gehenna in Matthew stands for a historical judgment. He can see how this makes good sense of the sayings about anger, hypocrisy, retaliation, and love of enemies, which presuppose a context of conflict and violence. But how is looking at a woman lustfully (Matt. 5:27-30) connected to the war against Rome and the destruction of the temple?

The proclamation of the kingdom

As Matthew tells the story, sometime after the testing in the wilderness Jesus hears of the arrest of John the Baptist; he withdraws to Galilee and begins to proclaim the imminence of the kingdom of heaven (4:12, 17, 23), which is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not the church or social justice or heaven or new creation. Within the limited purview of Matthew’s Gospel, it will be the active, interventionist, and highly divisive rule of God over his own people. “Do not think that I came to bring peace in the land,” Jesus says. “I came not to bring peace but a sword” (10:34*).

The healings and exorcisms that accompany the proclamation are concrete signs of one aspect of the impending kingdom event—the liberation and restoration of at least part of Israel from a demonically inspired social-political repression. Large crowds are naturally attracted to the Galilean campaign as a result (4:23-25).

The other aspect of the kingdom event, already hinted in John’s fierce scolding of the Pharisees and Sadducees who come for baptism (3:7-10), will be a catastrophic judgment against the current wicked and adulterous generation of Jews.

The Sermon on the Mount

To escape the crowds Jesus goes up on a mountain and teaches his disciples about what is at stake and how he expects them to behave in light of the coming kingdom event (5:1-2).

The Sermon on the Mount has a thoroughly eschatological orientation, by which I mean that it looks ahead to a transformative crisis in the history of Israel. It begins with the pronouncement of blessing on the humble righteous who will inherit the new state of affairs which God will inaugurate within a generation (5:3-12; cf. 10:23; 16:28; 23:36; 24:34). It ends with a series of dire warnings: many in Israel are on a broad road leading to destruction (7:13-14); they are diseased trees that will be cut down and burned in the fire of God’s wrath (7:17-20); they have built their house on the sand, and it will not survive the devastating flood and storm that will come upon it before long (7:24-27).

All the ethical-religious instruction between the beginning and the end presupposes this temporal frame: this is how his disciples are to function as a righteous, witnessing presence in Israel (5:14-16) during this traumatic period.

The first point that Jesus makes—and he makes it emphatically—is that the Jewish Law will remain operative for his disciples until everything entailed in the prophetic-apocalyptic vision has been accomplished: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil” (5:17*).

The next statement, “Truly, I say to you: until the heaven and the earth pass away, not one iota or one dot will pass from the Law until all things come about (panta genētai)” (5:18*), anticipates the later “apocalyptic” affirmation:

Truly, I say to you that this generation will not pass away until all these things come about (panta tauta genētai); the heaven and the earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matt. 24:34–35*)

The historical perspective is absolutely clear: in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Jesus will be “seen” as the vindicated Son of Man, and the mission of the disciples will be brought to an end; but until then the Law will remain in force.

Indeed, he imposes on them a really quite draconian requirement:

For I say to you that if your righteousness does not abound greater than (that of) the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of the heavens. (5:20*)

The “you have heard it said… but I say to you” antitheses (5:21-48) are to be understood, then, as examples of how the righteousness of the disciples must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. We can probably assume that they all conform to a basic argument: if the disciples do not live up to the higher standard set by Jesus, they will suffer the same fate as the scribes and Pharisees, which will be the “judgment of Gehenna” (5:22, 29-30; 23:33).

So, for example, the scribes and Pharisees insist that the disciples keep the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Jesus, however, raises the bar: “But I say to you that anyone looking at a woman in order to desire (epithymēsai) her already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28*). In that case, it would be better to tear out an eye (why he specifies the right eye is unclear) and throw it away than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna (5:29-30; cf. 18:9).

The judgment of Gehenna

There are certainly Jewish traditions in which Gehenna has become a place of post mortem torment (e.g., Sib. Or. 2:283-312), but I argue that Jesus is drawing on a much more realistic prophetic motif.

He was clearly familiar with Jeremiah 7. Just as Jeremiah was instructed to stand in the gate of the Lord’s house and charge the men of Judah with having made it a den of robbers (Jer. 7:2, 11), so Jesus would—in self-conscious imitation—enter the temple and declare, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13).

So we have good reason to think that what comes later in the chapter was also on Jesus’ mind.

Jeremiah goes on to predict that during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians so many Jews would die that they would have to be buried in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom or Gehinnom, and the “corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Jer. 7:32-33*; 19:6-7, 11).

But then also we read in Josephus’ account of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans that bodies were thrown from the walls into the valleys below because there was no longer room to bury them in the city (War 5.12.3 §518).

If we draw a line from Jeremiah’s prophecy to Josephus’ historical account, it runs right through Jesus’ vision of whole bodies thrown into Gehenna.

So his point is not that merely looking at a woman lustfully directly merits the sort of extreme punishment that is associated, one way or another, with the word “Gehenna.” He is not promoting a general Christian ethic in which sexual desire is as bad as actual adultery or anger and name-calling as bad as murder (5:21-22).

The intention, rather, behind all these sayings is to mark the disciples out as a radical community of eschatological renewal, subject to a new Moses by whose agency Israel will be delivered from the final catastrophe of the war against Rome. There is a broad way of hollow Torah-observance exhibited in the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees, which will end in destruction. There must be a corresponding narrow way of radical Torah-observance, exhibited in the social and religious practices of the disciples, which will skirt round the calamity and arrive at the life of the age to come.

The generation of his wrath

Jesus names adultery not because it directly threatened the security of Israel but because it was symptomatic of the current corruption of the whole of Jewish life. It’s worth going back to that chapter in Jeremiah again. It is part of the prophet’s reproach that the people “steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known,” and then they go and stand in the temple and say, “We are delivered!” (Jer. 7:9-10). But the temple, which they have made a den of robbers, will not save them; on the contrary, it will be destroyed, and the dead bodies of this “generation of his wrath,” as Jeremiah calls them (7:29), will be scattered in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom.

Jesus similarly highlights murder (Matt. 5:21-22), adultery (5:27-32), and swearing falsely (5:33-37). He does not mention offerings to Baal, but he does warn his disciples to be reconciled with a brother before offering a gift at the altar (5:23-24); and perhaps the advice to settle with an accuser lest they be imprisoned until they have paid the last penny (5:25-26) corresponds to Jeremiah’s reference to stealing. There is no equivalent to the sayings about retaliation and love for enemies (5:38-47) in Jeremiah 7, but we seem to have established a solid and contextually relevant basis for an eschatological reading of Jesus’ words about lust and adultery.