Drums pounded their wicked message, bouncing off the rock faces and outcroppings of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. The valley mourned. Rocks in various shades of gray cast shadows of slightly darker colors of that washed-out hue. The sky hung heavy with the deep slate of thick smoke. The only variation came from the stirring of light on the walls of the ravine that ran south along the west wall of the Old City. As the rock-cut reached its southernmost limits, it veered east along the side of Mount Zion. And as it headed to its destination, the Kidron Valley, it became a most accurate depiction of hell on earth.
A line of figures crept along the edge of the valley like fleas along a cur’s backbone. Many were drawn to the blessings promised by the gods of the place. Yet not all of those following the ridge path were there because of misplaced faith.
Jabez smoothed his hand over his bearded face, wiping the sweat from his sun-bronzed skin. Sweat. The only moisture in this God-forsaken land. And God had forsaken it. That was evident by the length of the drought that fed the crops of dust which clung to clothing, hair, and skin. Plant life had long been dead. He sighed. Dead since the Tophet had been kindled. Now it was a refuse dump. A place to burn the corpses of criminals. A place that had returned to its original, wicked purpose. A place of worship to heathen gods.
Jabez recalled more prosperous days. A time before Ahab, king of the Israelites, married Jezebel, the Sidonian princess. The new Queen Jezebel had introduced many idolatrous acts the people of Jehovah—including worshipping at the Tophet. Jabez had been much younger then, yet he remembered it well.
A skittering of stone interrupted Jabez’s thoughts and announced the presence of his fellow rescuers. He turned back and batted his hand at the air, signaling his brother Huri to be quiet. Huri in turn, passed the signal to their friend Kenaniah who shrugged apologetically. Huri had already lost three grandchildren to the Tophet. It had been the goad that had driven the three men to their midnight pursuits. They had managed to rescue Kenaniah’s son and had then gone on to do so for a number of others who still followed Jehovah. Even now, Uriah, the fourth of their group, was on his way to the temple mount with the child from their latest rescue.
The final rays of the piercing Israeli sun caught the gold of Solomon’s temple and turned it to brilliant hues of rust, bronze, and copper. It twinkled just above the oily smoke that was ever present in the valley. Jabez frowned. Only an hour of sunlight remained. An hour in which to save his grandson from a fate that no human should be forced to face. Squaring his shoulders, he motioned to his cohorts to move on and the three of them continued their secret journey from one rock shadow to another.
Kenaniah cocked his head up. “The drums have stopped.” The words echoed in the sudden silence. A silence punctuated by the roar of the fire stove and distant weeping. “Another is lost.” Kenaniah’s whispered voice carried urgency, and Jabez nodded. He wiped at a tear of his own and held his finger to his lips. His heart pounded the rhythm abandoned by the drums. They didn’t have much time. The silence and the heat bore down on them, screaming the truth of the scene they were approaching—one more child was dead. Burned to death in the great maw of the Tophet.
Rage seared through Jabez once more as he thought back on his daughter’s foolish decision. Had he not taught her that Jehovah did not look favorably upon the cruelty of child sacrifice? Yet Shani had chosen to disobey him. Disobey her own father! A thing unheard of in Israel in his younger days.
Movement ahead caught his attention and he forced his boiling emotions into submission only to have them flare again. He wiped at his eyes with the back of a dust-caked hand. Shani. He could tell by the way she tipped her head slightly to the side. She was far enough away but he’d know that stance anywhere. So like his beautiful wife, Mahlah. And wasn’t that Mahlah’s shawl that Shani carried her infant son in? Silently he cursed the weakness of youth. His wife’s stark beauty had ensnared him and he realized only too late that she was a follower of the hated gods Moloch and Baal. He had forbidden her to bring the foul idols into his home but she easily outmaneuvered him. She had passed her love of evil onto their daughter.
Jabez increased his speed. He must reach Shani before she passed the entrance to the Tophet area. He would have called out to her but he knew she would ignore him. In her defiant state, she might even speed her gait to escape him. No, he would have to overpower her. It was the only way. Together he and his two companions would take her and the child to his home where the infant would be safe. In the times of earlier kings, she would have been stoned for considering offering her child to Moloch. May his name be cursed in all the heavens and earth!
The three men dropped to the path that led to the sacrificial area and tried hard to blend in with the milling masses going to watch the gruesome proceedings. The heat pushed at them as though a living thing, reaching out to touch them with its cruel fingers. Shani had stepped to the end of a line of women, all holding children of various ages, and Jabez felt the urge to throw up. How could a woman love her child so little? He worked to fix his features. It wouldn’t do to have someone see the rage on his face and try to stop him from interfering.
Only six stood ahead of her. Fire consumed with great speed and appetite. Their pace quickened and they elbowed past those who walked ahead of them. The drums began their chant again, drowning out the screams of the infant that had been placed into the metal idol, covering the wails of the mother who had changed her mind too late.
Jabez watched it all through the flickering light, smoke and waves of heat; he moved faster. The woman reached for the idol as it was lowered into the great pit of flames. Her mouth opened and her face contorted, and then she fainted. Searching back along the line, he caught his daughter’s face. Her deep brown eyes glittered. Was that excitement? Her brown hair was plastered to her face with sweat and the heat blew the ends of the long strands away from her body. Evil was present. Jabez could see it clearly and he shuddered. The drums ceased again and the scuffle of rocks and pebbles shouted their approach.
The crowd had thickened and many shouted to the heavens; they called out the names of various gods as they begged for rain, prosperity, and fertility. Some laughed while others cheered for the mothers willing to give their children to the flames. If only Jabez were a warrior and not a simple farmer.
Movement to his left drew his attention and he stopped, the fear of being caught drawing a new batch of sweat on his brow. Three priests of Baal stood on top a small cluster of boulders away from the main path. The boulders were wet with blood and the men were crisscrossed with gaping wounds. They held ceremonial knives in their hands and with every request, every plea, every shout; they gashed yet another portion of their bodies. For a moment Jabez stood disbelieving. He had heard of the ritual cuttings before but never had he seen the gruesome act.
Huri turned to the side and emptied the contents of his stomach. Four women had come up behind to better view the sacrifice and they stepped out of the way, giving him a strange look. He wiped his mouth on his mantle and nodded apologetically to the women. “It must have been the lamb. It tasted off. My pardon.”
The women tisked in sympathy and daintily bypassed the fouled area. When they were out of earshot, Huri growled his disgust. He was about the say something to his companions, but the drums filled the air with a crushing sound. Three children had yet to depart.
Elbowing their way into the crowd, they cut toward the line of women. A woman stood near the edge of the pit, her crimson gown stained darker red in splotches. The lengthy garment flapped against her body and billowed out behind her as the furnace’s blast maintained a perpetual scorching wind. Her hair swirled about her head in black snaking ropes. If she wasn’t truly a demon, she certainly looked the part. Jabez saw Kenaniah shudder and he nodded as though reading his friend’s mind. A terrifying picture to be sure.
The priestess reached for another idol and held it open for the next blood offering. It was made of heavy bronze and Jabez was amazed at the woman’s ability to hold it while the mother placed her infant into its hollow. He wanted to shout for them to stop. He wanted to grasp the child in his arms—all of the children—and run away. He continued to push against the flow of inhumanity as he edged closer to his goal. He could see the details of his daughter’s profile. Praise Jehovah that she hadn’t seen them yet. Shani watched the scene at the pit’s edge, her face emotionless. But her eyes had widened. Jabez glared at her as she took in each detail of the idol.
The front was a man, fearless and awesome to behold. On its right was the form of a cat and on its left the form of a toad. The three figures were joined to make a three-sided idol to represent the three entities of Baal. The man-form opened on a hinge at the bottom of the body—large enough for a child—and the priestess braced herself as the mother placed the child into the warm metal. The door was closed and clamped shut. Solemnly, the priestess set the idol down and attached a heavy chain to it. And then the demon woman raised hands to the sky and began to scream incantations and chants in foul languages that could barely be heard over the drums. The hideous metal beast was cranked into the air with the aid of a metal beam and the muscles of a Canaanite slave. Hand over hand, the slave lowered the monster into the pit and the awaiting flames.
Jabez stopped in his tracks. Just when he thought he had seen the worst, these people showed him that they could go even further. The drums ceased again and he was prodded into action. One more baby and then his precious little Yeseph would be next. He could see tufts of black hair peeking out of the shawl and he ached to snatch that small bundle away from the careless arms of its mother. Soon! Very soon! He could almost smell the sweet fragrance of the child’s skin—the warmth of his breath.
The drums. Again. Another hideous monster was fed. Jabez was amazed at how many idols sat behind the priestess waiting for their innocent meal. Another slave stood beyond, waiting for the consumed sacrifice to be raised. The Canaanite pulled on the chain, drawing the bronzed creature from the depths. The metal glowed an unearthly hue and the second slave reached forward with a long pole. Snagging the chain, he guided the idol to a huge pot of water. Steam billowed up from the pot as the metal figure was lowered and the chain unhooked. There would be nothing left inside. The child had been incinerated.
Twenty cubits. It was all the distance that remained. Jabez shoved harder against the crowd as his daughter stepped up to the priestess. Shani had chosen to honor Moloch. A different idol was brought forth. It had the head of a bull, its horns turned up and drawn together to meet the ring that would connect with the chain. He watched in horror as the priestess unhinged the door and his daughter set his beloved Yeseph inside. The drums! The hated drums! He lunged, breaking free of the ring of spectators, and Huri and Kenaniah stumbled into the clearing behind him.
Jabez felt his mouth move. He sensed the knotting of his vocal chords as he screamed his grandson’s name. Charging across the clearing, he shouldered his daughter aside, not caring that she fell. Gripping the hated idol by the horns, he vented his rage on the demon woman. Shouting maniacally, he wrenched at the cage and was surprised by the priestess’s strength. Her dark eyes flashed with power and lust for blood and a tug-of-war ensued. The drums stopped and Jabez could hear his brother and friend as they fought the guards and priests. The crowd began to mutter. They would have a time of it escaping with the child. They could dispose of the idol later. With a final heave, he pulled the idol free and turned to flee.
Leaping into the space between his daughter and the Canaanite slave, Jabez could taste victory as he ducked to the left, hoping to out-maneuver anyone who would follow. From out of the darkness, a clink of metal caught his foot and his ankle turned. The chain! He rolled onto his back, hoping to protect the child from the fall. Yeseph’s cries echoed from inside the metal bull, and then Jabez hit the ground hard. His wind was gone and he threw his arms wide. The idol rolled away from him. Struggling to draw in breath, he made to lunge for it again. But it was too late!
Hands clamped upon his arms and the two slaves hauled Jabez upright. He watched helplessly as some of the crowd subdued Huri and Kenaniah. Shani rose and meticulously dusted off her homespun dress. She was furious. Clearly. Jabez lifted his head and glared at her. Perhaps she would listen to him now. Now that she saw how important it was to him.
“Stop this, Shani. Do not do this evil thing.”
Gasps came from various spots in the crowd and a man shouted, “He has blasphemed the god! Moloch will punish us now! Don’t we already feel his wrath? He is burning our lands!”
“Silence!” Jabez roared the word. “Are you so foolish as to believe that this piece of metal—” He nodded to the abandoned idol “—can make any difference in the weather?
“You think he is the god of the sun! Bah! Foolishness! He can no more keep the sun from scorching the land then I can make the sun rise in the west! He cannot bring us rain!”
The child continued to wail, clearly upset with finding himself trapped in darkness. Jabez looked at his daughter again. “Open that foul cage and bring my grandson to me. I command it as your father!” He watched his daughter straighten her skirts. Standing then, she turned to face him. He gasped, suddenly frightened by the look in her eyes. The same look as the priestess’s.
“No, Father. I will not. Your Jehovah is dead. I will not follow a weak God. I will follow a god of strength.” Reaching down, Shani gripped the horns of the abandoned sun god. At the touch she closed her eyes and smiled, lifting her face to the heavens. With a heave, she dragged the idol across the ground to where the priestess stood. The metal scraped and grated on the loose stones, punctuated by the steady wails of its occupant. Singing softly through her thin lips, Shani cooed to her infant son who had worked himself into a frenzied state. Jabez shook his head, speechless.
The priestess nodded sharply and the drums began their final serenade for the day. Jabez screamed. He thrashed and flailed, but his captors held him firm. Step by step, Shani dragged the bronze bull to the pit’s edge. The priestess made to fasten the chain, but Shani shook her head. Reaching out, she gripped the chain and worked the hook into the ring. Jabez knew she was still singing. He could see her lips moving. At that moment, the urge to kill made his body tremble. Was he so different than his daughter? Yes! As angry as he was he would never carry out the deed! He squeezed his eyes shut, praying it was all simply a bad dream—an evil vision of what might be. The drums continued their symphony, pounding out the child’s death sentence. He opened his eyes again and bellowed his rage, straining against his bonds.
Shani stepped back then and smiled at the priestess. The witch woman stepped forward and cupped his daughter’s face, her eyes tender. Leaning forward she kissed her. And then she turned to Jabez’s captors. Another stepped in to take the Canaanite’s place and Jabez wrenched free. Hope! One last hope! He flailed and stumbled his way to the edge, his eyes fixed firmly on the bull. And then Shani was there. With a mighty heave, she pushed the idol from the edge. The Canaanite saw Jabez lunge and he let go of the chain, allowing the bull to plunge to the depths.
Jabez landed on his belly, his arms reaching out over the edge. “No!” His words were lost in the roar of the flames, and the skin on his hands blistered with the intense heat. Someone tugged at his tunic and he turned to see his daughter working to pull him from the brink. His eyes narrowed into slits of hatred and he thrust her hands away. “Don’t touch me! You are no longer my child!” He hissed the words and Shani sat back quickly. Shaking his head, he pulled himself to his feet, his great chest heaving like the billows that fanned the flames in the idol smithy. Tears ran freely down his weathered face, cutting tracks through the sweat and soot and dust. He turned his gaze on the crowd. They had released Huri and Kenaniah and those two stood aside, Jabez’s sorrow mirrored on their faces. Then he bellowed to the crowd, “A day will come when you will pay for this!”
A rustle of heavy material drew his attention to the priestess. She stood there with a smug grin on her face. Jabez wanted to wrap his hands around that scrawny throat, lift her off her feet and pitch her into the pit after her beloved god. Instead, he spat on her. Brushing past his daughter he scooped his mantle and rope from the ground. Leaving his brother and friend behind, he shoved his great bulk through the crowd and away from the horror. Those gathered were all too eager to step aside.
The sun was down to a sliver on the horizon when Jabez left. The celebrating had begun. Celebrating. Bah! His daughter might just have well ripped his heart from his chest. His beloved Yeseph was gone. Jabez wound his way up toward the great city. He needed to pray. The grief tore at him and tears ran freely. He batted at his nose with the back of his hand and received strange looks from those who hadn’t witnessed the scene at the pit. To his right the priests continued their ritual, the gore of their worship making the stones around them dark and slick. Off in a grove farther down the path an orgy took place—they offered themselves to the fertility god. He snorted. No doubt they would think the useless, lifeless gods had helped them conceive. An inevitable event in such circumstances. Farther west, the cacophony of a bigger, more boisterous gathering filled his ears and he shuddered to think what took place there.
He squinted through the dark, the burnished flames of the Tophet flickering in the background—his only light to see by. It was the grove of Asherah where the revelers cavorted. Tall poles stood out against the night sky like silent fingers grasping at the stars. Again he spat. Queen of the Heaven! More like Queen of the Heathen! Picking up a rock he roared out his anger and pitched the missile at one of the posts. The celebration continued on, oblivious to his pain—his torment.
At every turn of the path in the Valley of Hinnom, abominations were acted out, and his rage swelled as he trudged toward the holy hill to the temple. He knew what he would find there too. Asherah poles. Idols. Temple prostitutes and blood everywhere. But it was Jehovah’s house first. He would not enter. He would sit at the wall and pray. Beg Jehovah to pour His vengeance out on those who had dishonored His name. Pray for Him to hear an old man’s cries.
An hour later, Huri and Kenaniah found Jabez sprawled face down weeping just outside the western wall. They watched in apprehension as the claws of night reached up to grab the last shades of orange, pink and crimson out of the sky.
* * *
Jezebel knew she should still be in mourning—had been in mourning—until she had heard of the arrival of Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat. The name was a curse running through her mind. The man would dare to declare himself king of Israel! She pushed away from the window she had been gazing from and paced. Some fool of a prophet had called Jehu away from his military post, dumped oil on him, and told him he was now king. In spite of the fact that her son and Ahab’s direct heir was already king—and had been for some time. And Joram was the right kind of king—one through which she could rule discretely. Like his father had been. Oh Ahab had his moments of fidelity to the Hebrew God, but Jezebel had quickly worked her charms to bring him back to the Baal. Back to child sacrifices.
She checked her image in the beaten bronze mirror. Flawless. Her gown of crimson shimmered in the reflection. Black paint framed her eyes and her thick hair coiled about her head in a sleek halo. She was aging but the mirror didn’t show it.
Jezebel had seen the coming of many prophets, including Elijah and Elisha. While those two pesky prophets had slipped through her hands, she had been present for the slaughter of the others. And this new upstart would be no different. After she saw to it that Jehu paid for his treason, she would personally sacrifice this new prophet to her god.
Returning to the window, Jezebel allowed her mind to replay all she had been told. The battle against Hazel of Aram over the city of Ramoth Gilead had failed. It turned out that Joram wasn’t the military strategist he thought he was. And that idiot from Judah. Ahaziah, king of Judah, had had the audacity to come to Jezreel while Joram was convalescing from his war wounds. Jehu had followed, and Joram had sent out a messenger to ask the commander’s intentions. The rider had simply joined the hoard of soldiers at Jehu’s back. The second rider had done likewise. Joram, in his frustration, had ordered his chariot to be ready. And Ahaziah had done likewise.
Jezebel shook her head. She never would have thought it would have come to this. Joram dead. Ahaziah dead. Jehu hadn’t even been respectful of the body. Picked up and tossed aside like a carcass of meat. Naboth’s field. That was where her son’s body lay. Just as the prophet had said. The thought came on its own and she pushed it away. As for Ahaziah, news had only just reached her that he was in Megiddo and likely wouldn’t survive the night.
She looked down at her dress. It should be black and her hair should be filled with the dust of ashes. But there was no time for mourning. She was queen and absolute ruler now. Forcing her eyes back to the road that stretched away from the city, she waited for the man who wanted to call himself king.
Hooves clattering on cobblestone alerted Jezebel that Jehu and his men had arrived. But what could he do to her here? Jezreel was a fortress. She shuddered. The prophecy about Ahab and his line had another side to it. She leaned over the parapet and allowed her eyes to scan the streets for dogs. She hated dogs. They were part of the prophecy. A mangy mongrel skulked out of an alley and she pulled back into the room.
Her mind abandoned all thoughts of dogs as Jehu and his men came into sight. She allowed a leer to rest on her painted lips. For all his stature and pomp and ceremony he still couldn’t touch her in her safe haven. And it wouldn’t take her long to rally her supporters.
She leaned back out onto the sill again and called to the armored rider. “Have you come in peace, Zimri, you murderer of your master?”
A gasp reached her ears and she knew the insult had found its mark. Zimri had seized the throne of Elah not more than forty-five years back. He, too, had assassinated his master and then destroyed the whole house of Baasha. She smiled then. The jibe had more depth, for Elah had ruled a mere seven days before he was destroyed. She could wait a week for rescue and it didn’t hurt to remind Jehu of that fact.
Jehu’s face turned toward her and his voice echoed through the streets and into her chambers, “Who is on my side? Who?”
And then, to Jezebel’s horror, three of her eunuchs were beside her.
Jehu didn’t wait for an answer. “Throw her down!”
Jezebel struggled against the strong hands that clamped onto her. Screeching, she thrashed against the efforts of her servants. They would pay dearly! The stone ledge scraped down her back as she was hoisted into the air and stuffed out the window. And then Jezebel—queen of Israel, worshipper of the Baal and the dark arts, murderer of children and prophets—plunged to the stones below.
Her mind bellowed its anger and in its protest it slowed and drew all around it into deep focus. She could see every hair on each horse that pranced and milled around in the courtyard. She could see each expression on every face as she dropped. And her final awareness was of the gathering of dogs—the ones that the prophet said would lick up her blood and devour her broken flesh.
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