Hezekiah, who needed one hand to carry the water bags flung on his shoulder, found he could assist a child with his other hand. By gripping their hands together he could bounce a child along, speeding their pace and saving them the sting of the whip. But his heart was shut from forming attachments.
Each step brought Hezekiah closer to a future of abuse and slavery, far from the marble and golden halls of his palace home. The journey removed the joy and plans of childhood from him and he briefly considered telling the soldiers who he was. Usually the son of a king would be a prize to be ransomed. But Ahaz would not consider Hezekiah one and he remained silent.
The people were driven into the hills, through the pass created by the river’s tributary, and toward the capital city, Samaria. Finally after long days of miserable travel, the army suddenly stopped their march. In the light of late afternoon they could see the walls and towers of Samaria less than an hour away on a hill in the distance. Beneath the city was a fertile valley, filled with grains, olive groves and grape vineyards. The lush landscape spread out and greeted them in the foothills from which they were descending.
A relay of voices called back for a stop and Hezekiah eased the heavy burden of water skins from his shoulders to the ground. He turned so the breeze would wash over his wet back where the water from the skins had run with the sweat from his labor. All around him were women in rent clothing and torn feet who carried babes and tried to cheer dirty, exhausted children. They had been fed little beyond the sting of a whip and they had eyed the water Hezekiah carried vainly, for it was only for the soldiers.
As soon as the army halted, the women and children eased toward a grove of olive trees, hoping to find water in an irrigation channel or muddy puddles. When the stop lengthened Hezekiah took the water bags and worked his way, with stooped shoulders and shuffled steps, as close to the front as he dared. He gave water to any soldier who demanded it as he advanced. Then he heard a voice that was shouting to a muffled crowd.
“Oded, the prophet, has come to speak to the armies of Judah and Israel,” the voice said. The statement was met with silence.
Hezekiah moved forward. There he saw a large group of people that had come out from the city to meet the army. The army had stopped and in the distance between the two groups was a small detachment that had separated from the city group and moved forward. The men of the detachment were well dressed and their faces had not seen the bitterness of war. In the middle, was an elderly man on a donkey that held the attention of all who were gathered. Standing at his right shoulder was a man who would listen to his words and then shout them to the army.
“Behold the Lord God of your fathers,” he called out, “was wroth with Judah, he hath delivered them into your hand, and ye have slain them in a rage that reacheth up unto heaven.”
The tired soldiers who were weary with the march suddenly interrupted in a shout of victory. Surely the Lord God had delivered Judah into their hands. Some congratulated each other and some turned to kick or spit on the captives they had brought. Hezekiah felt a blow to the back of his head that sent him to his knees.
But the man on the donkey raised his hand and eventually they quieted. Then his spokesman called out, “And now,” he said clearly, “ye purpose to keep as bondmen and bondwomen the children of Judah,” they nodded their heads with smiles that quickly faded at his next words. “But are there not even with you sins against the Lord your God?” There was a sudden silence in the ranks; the words stunned them.
“Who has not committed sins?” one of the soldiers shouted. “Are we afraid of the words of an old man?”
“But it is the prophet of the God of our fathers,” a chief captain said steadily in response. The soldiers began to shift uneasily.
“We have sinned,” an older soldiers said loudly. “Have we not forgotten God and offered sacrifices to false idols? If it was God who delivered them into our hands because of their wickedness, should we who are also wicked claim the spoils of the victory?”
Hezekiah looked up stunned. He had not considered that his people had been defeated in battles because of their wickedness. He thought back on the war and how badly it had been going for them. Did nobody in Judah make the connection? Why did the people not repent and turn again to the God of their Fathers? Hezekiah stood up to look around at the faces of captives and soldiers. He suddenly realized there had been no prayers to the Lord during the march. Then Hezekiah knew one answer: Ahaz. Though not yet king, his influence and even commands had done much harm to Judah.
“What are we to do?” someone called out.
The man who was the voice for Oded the prophet paused to listen with his ear near the prophet’s mouth. Then he stepped forward and called out loudly, “The prophet has spoken, ‘Now hear me therefore, and deliver the captives again, which ye have taken captive of your brethren: for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you.’”
There was a great disturbance of noise. Then again the army settled down and turned to watch because the multitude from the city began to part and four men on magnificent mounts rode through them, passed the prophet and his group, then stopped when they were right up to the commanders of the army. Their rich robes flowed over their beautiful horses that pranced restlessly. A tall man with light hair spoke, “I am Azariah the son of Johanan. These are Berechiah the son of Meshillemoth, and Jehizkiah the son of Shallum, and Amasa the son of Hadlai. We fear what will befall our city if you bring these women and children among us. We have come forth this day to say, ye shall not bring in the captives hither.” He looked at each leader in turn and then let his eyes travel the ranks behind. “For whereas we have offended against the Lord already, ye intend to add more to our sins and to our trespass: for our trespass is great, and there is fierce wrath against Israel.”
Hezekiah decided that these men must have been princes for the army began to look at each other as if they knew there were no alternatives. They reluctantly unloaded their packs of the spoils, then quietly, rank on rank, they rode or marched around the group that had come out from the city. They moved forward resentfully, but without further debate. Some of the soldiers went with shame creased into their faces, but many cast angry glances. Some of the captains swore vengeance softly in their beards, but nobody offered resistance to what they had been asked to do.
Hezekiah returned to the thick of the captives where there were several women and children he had travelled with. He related to them the events. Many worried what their fate would be now. They were interrupted by the people from Samaria who began to move among them.
The Samarians carried baskets from which they produced food, spare robes, bandages for wounds, and ointments for sore feet. They brought skins and jugs of fresh cool water and they began to use what they had brought to administer to the worn, hungry and ill treated captives. They worked gently and with kind smiles. They made a camp there in the hills among the grape vines and olive trees. That night everyone slept soundly in the camp. Then the people of Samaria carefully led the captive women and children back the way they had come.