Hezekiah stood at the half wall that encompassed the rooftop of the palace. His hands gripped the coolness of the stones and his feet slipped from the sandals he had pulled on carelessly. The night was hot and even with his loose cotton tunic and open robe he felt the heat rising from the city below. Hezekiah often came up to the rooftop at night and gazed at the stars that filled the heavens. He had begun to study them and was fascinated with the idea that from the stars a man could find his way through a desert. However, the stars were dim beyond the brightness of the moon this night, while the flat-topped houses, walls, gardens, and empty markets of Jerusalem were well illuminated below.
Suddenly Hezekiah heard a noise that did not belong to the still hours. Turning about, but taking care to remain silent and undetected, he picked up his sandals and scurried to the northern wall of the roof to look over into a courtyard below. Coming from one of the palace buildings, opposite from where he watched, Hezekiah saw a man in long, dark robes and carrying a scroll, emerge onto a pillared porch. On the man’s head was the image of a beast with great horns. He swayed forward and back with shallow, repeated bows as he walked as if to the rhythm of a chant, with his robes flowing behind him and sweeping the tiled courtyard. Behind the man, following on the edges of his robe, yet careful not to step upon it, were two lads slightly younger than Hezekiah in simple brown linen tunics, carrying torches. Following them was a man Hezekiah instantly recognized from his royal regalia as Ahaz.
Years ago, in an unprecedented act, Jotham, King of Judah, and father to Ahaz, had arranged a marriage between Ahaz and the older Abijah, daughter of Zechariah II. Zechariah had been the high priest of the temple. Ahaz was but ten years old at the time and it was unknown why Zechariah would consent to the marriage; perhaps it was a mutual desire that Ahaz would have an heir born of a woman of noble Judean birth before he took other wives and concubines. Nevertheless, he had allowed his daughter to marry the Judean heir and by the time Ahaz was eleven, he was a father with the birth of Hezekiah. It was the only time a child marriage was to be arranged among the kings of the Davidic line.
There was no intimacy between father and son, and they were never alone together. Now, after nearly ten years, Hezekiah was the ignored, though expedient son. And after the events of this night, for Hezekiah, there would be no affection toward his father: only contempt and despising.
The commotions below refocused Hezekiah’s attention to the people who continued to emerge from the palace door. There were other men in dark robes, other boys with torches, and then a round-shouldered woman in grey. She was heavily hooded and stooped over a bundle she carried in her arms. Then Hezekiah saw another woman richly dressed stumble upon the threshold, and with the support of two maids, cross the porch to the steps that led down to the courtyard. Ahaz had married again only a year ago. From her state appearances, it was known that this wife had instantly become a favorite, and rumors claimed that she would soon give birth. Her attendants were heavily veiled and the new wife was also hidden behind a veil, but in the bright moonlight and the additional glow from the torches, Hezekiah recognized the gold embroidery of swans upon the hem of her robe, and then he saw a loose curl of pale hair. It was the new wife, brought to Ahaz from an isle in the Great Sea, and prized for her light colored hair. Hezekiah was confused as to why all these people would be about in the middle of the night, and why the new wife was leaning so heavily upon others.
He watched as the silent procession wound its way through the palace buildings to the southern gate of the palace compound. On an impulse, Hezekiah fled from the roof, racing down the stone stairs and through the gardens and courtyards so that he would not lose them. He was grateful that his bare feet could travel soundlessly, while the roughness of the way did not bother his soles, which had been toughened from often forgetting to slip into sandals.
The small group carried torches, but the light from the moon was sufficient to provide Hezekiah with a view so that he could follow from a distance. They travelled from level to level, down from the Ophel, then through the old City of David toward the eastern wall and the water gate. There Ahaz and his group entered the gate and proceeded past the four rooms, two on each side. Sleepy guards snapped to a standing position, but when they knew it was Ahaz, no challenge was given. The small group passed through the gate with its store rooms filled with water vessels, and then entered the great projecting tower that rose up from the slope above the Kidron Valley to the top of the eastern wall of Jerusalem as part of the water gate complex. Hezekiah fell in at the rear, confused as to why Ahaz would be taking them from the city in the middle of the night.
The group carefully proceeded down the ancient, twisted steps that descended through the tower toward the road that led up from the King’s Highway in the Kidron Valley below. Getting the new wife down the narrow steps was difficult and she leaned heavily on others for support. . .
The group walked through the darkness, ignoring the valley below where the light from the moon was reflected upon a pool where a black swan slept, his beak tucked into his feathers. They walked silently downward, except for the soft chants of the masked priest. They went past the southern end of Jerusalem, crossing over the conduit, but following the Kidron Valley to where it was joined by the Hinnom Valley’s narrow darkness angling in from the south-west. . .
Following from a discreet distance, Hezekiah felt the growing evil of the Hinnom Valley like a thick mist around him. He had only heard vague whisperings of this place and had credited most of them to the ghost stories children liked to scare each other with. However the deep, dark feelings of evil as they approached a dark temple ahead were not the imaginings of a child.
The young wife was practically being carried now and a youth had been conscripted to help support her. The woman, who carried the bundle, was cooing to it and bouncing it gently. A sudden cry confirmed that it was a baby. It was also a confirmation to the dread that had been growing in Hezekiah’s heart that the young wife had delivered. With a choking fear, he began to suspect that the stories of his companions were based on fact. He tried to swallow, but his throat was tight. Hezekiah increased his pace to close the gap, desiring to be near people, however wicked, rather than alone.
Suddenly the moon was blocked by the tall dark temple to Molech. The priest stood back while two young men came forward and each pulled open a large wooden door balanced upon iron hinges that sank into hollow sockets in the doorway. The procession, one by one, now passed into the temple with its vaulted ceilings and grotesque images. Hezekiah entered behind the women and slipped behind one of the pillars that lined the perimeter of the hall within.
The room began to brighten as additional torches were lit and placed in alcoves along the walls. . . But most dominant was the massive figure cast in bronze that stood in the center of the large room. It was in the image of a man, though much taller, standing with out-stretched hands, but the head of a bull. Behind the horizontally poised hands, where the belly would have been, was a large oven where a fire had been lit an hour before and the coals were white beneath the new logs and flames.
Hezekiah recognized the massive idol as the pagan god Molech. He could feel the heat of the fire from where he stood, shielded by a pillar. He glanced around and saw that the wife of Ahaz had been laid on a couch. For the first time Hezekiah realized she was probably drugged. Then the priests of the party moved to a place where they selected drums from cubicles against the wall and began to strike them with the heels of their palms in rhythm to a mounting chant. The drums grew louder, the chant became stronger, and the cadence increased. Then the woman brought the bundle before the king.
Ahaz took the child, letting the wrappings fall away as he held him up before the brass image of the pagan god. “I have brought before you, oh powerful Molech,” he shouted above the din of the drums and chants, “my son. I offer him that you may know of our devotion to you and that you might defeat our enemies.”
Hezekiah was stunned. Although his mind had guessed it, the reality that Ahaz would place the screaming, pink, newborn infant on the heated brass hands of the idol hit him like a punch to his windpipe. Involuntarily he tried to call out in protest, but his feeble cry went unheard in the turmoil of noise. With great effort, Hezekiah tore himself away, rushed back through the door, and began to run away from the horrible scene. Mercifully, or perhaps by design, the chanting of the priests, and the beating of the drums drowned out the terrible cries of the child that was sacrificed in the Hinnom Valley that night.