Jabesh, Gilead, Israel, 870 BC
1 Kings 16:32-33
Elijah and Nathan clung to Dad and followed the crowd toward the continual eight drumbeats and a boom. They tied their donkeys in the ditch and stepped onto the plaza.
The sun still rode high, yet the young street merchants who roasted mutton and chestnuts had disappeared and taken their holiday fragrance with them. A few clouds from the morning rain lingered near the mountains, but no birdsong or breeze touched Elijah.
Smoke hovered above a knee-high platform in the center of the plaza.
Balancing with a hand on Dad’s shoulder, Elijah stretched for a quick view over the tallest heads. A bronze idol extended its arms over the fire with its palms to the sky.
Elijah blinked several times. Mother and Dad had said when the king sent Moloch priests to Samaria, they laid tiny babies on those hands, and the hinges let them drop into the flames. His stomach churned. How could anyone do such a thing?
The idol’s head reached as high as the shoulder of the man standing nearby. He faced the congregation with his feet spread wide and his chin high. He wore a black robe with a blood-red insignia over his heart.
Dad gripped Elijah and Nathan by the shoulders and pulled himself up for a look. “The driver who tried to run us over? He plays priest to that thing.”
The drum gave its eight beats and a boom. The drummer stood several paces from Elijah under an acacia tree at the edge of the plaza.
The blacksmith, the grocer, and the potter, together with a cluster of customers, occupied a section of the crowd between Elijah and the idol.
The priest fed kindling to the fire. Its acrid haze thickened, and flames rose around the idol’s empty palms.
Three couples faced the priest with their backs to Elijah.
The first couple stepped forward, and the man extended a naked child.
The priest held the baby high, a boy. He wiggled like Elijah’s three-months-old cousin.
“The old generals said, ‘Know your enemy.’” Dad stretched, peeked over the crowd, and shuddered. “We know Moloch comes with the king’s blessing.”
Elijah tugged at the neck of his tunic. Let the adults know the enemy. This boy would lead the donkeys home and hide in the middle of Dad’s vineyard.
“Behold the warrior.” The priest’s Sidonian accent sounded thick but clear. “Some sons die to protect us from swords and spears.” He took a deep breath, squared his frame, and scanned the crowd. “This son dies to protect us from starvation.”
Elijah recoiled and glanced around. Hadn’t they heard the priest’s donkey droppings? No one cringed or blushed. Each face held a mask as steady as the dull green patina that covered the bronze.
The baby’s mother slumped, and her husband gripped her arm.
Under the acacia tree, the drummer lifted his sticks and leaned forward.
Elijah clenched his fists and gave a nervous laugh. The priest was appeasing Moloch with a show, a pretense. He wouldn’t harm the infant. He would pass the baby in front of the fire and then hand him back to his father.
“He won’t burn that baby, will he, Dad?”
Please, Dad, tell me it’s not real.
At a deep sigh from Dad, Elijah sucked in his breath, and Nathan disappeared.
Elijah slipped an arm around Dad’s ribs, and Dad lifted himself with both hands on Elijah’s shoulder.
The priest faced the parents. As the drum tapped eight beats, he raised the baby over the idol.
“Stop!” Elijah yelled. “Stop!” He lost his grip on Dad.
A short man with long arms turned toward Elijah. Like the priest, he wore a black cloak with a blood-red insignia.
The drum boomed, and the priest released the baby onto the idol’s palms. A long wail of pain penetrated the crowd, the hinges opened, and the baby dropped into the fire.
Elijah whimpered, and the long-armed man slid closer to him.
The baby’s mother dropped to her knees. Her husband knelt and touched his lips to her ear. She leaned into him. He wrapped his arm around her waist and helped her stand.
The priest raised his chin, set his jaw, and scanned the crowd. He opened his hands for the next infant.
The stench of burning flesh reached Elijah’s nostrils. He gagged and lurched into the ditch by Nathan and the donkeys. With each shriek of the priest’s second victim, Elijah retched. When the cries stopped, he wiped his mouth, stumbled back, and sagged against Dad. While his lungs filled with deep, deep breaths, he hid his face in Dad’s beard.
Dad’s chest trembled. A warm drip fell on Elijah’s cheek, and he raised his head. Glistening streams flowed down Dad’s face.
Elijah straightened and lifted his chin. He would fight the terror.
The long-armed man drifted a few rows closer to Elijah.
The priest stepped over to the third couple in line.
Elijah gasped at their familiar silhouettes.
Stiff as posts, they faced the priest. Their boy was bigger than the first two. He struggled against the priest’s grip.
Elijah covered his mouth.
The little head turned.
“Omaaar!” Elijah charged between two men.
Omar let out a long squall. Elijah put his head down and bulled his way between two more onlookers. The baby yowled again.
“Omaaar!” Nathan yelled behind him. “I’m coming, Omar!” With grunts and thumps, he forced a path through the crowd to Elijah’s side and shoved a solid man out of the way.
“Nathan! Elijah!” Dad had not used that tone since the hay rick toppled toward them.
A fist swung at Elijah.
A second fist knocked Nathan to the ground.
A foot snagged Elijah’s ankle. He reeled forward, balanced for a moment, and glimpsed Omar rising in front of the priest’s face.
Nathan lay still, face in the dirt.
Elijah’s mouth smacked the paving stones, and Omar’s voice stopped in mid scream.
A force shoved into Elijah’s spine, and a hand gave his arm a sharp twist. “Butt out, kid.”
As Elijah kicked at his captor’s legs, the hand yanked him to his feet.
“Let go my son!” Dad lunged for the throat, but the man’s toe sent Dad sprawling.
Elijah twisted free. “Dad!” He jumped to his side.
The fist thrust toward Elijah’s jaw. He dodged, but the long arm swerved and plunged the fist into Elijah’s belly, doubling him.
“The priest don’t want yer noise.” One hand grasped his arm, another snared his ankle, and they dragged him across the plaza—ramming dirt from the paving stones into his nose. He landed with his face in vomit. “Omaaaar!”
“Shut it.” A booted foot shot sharp pain into Elijah’s cheek and the base of his skull.
“Stand back, Sakkar!” The blacksmith barked.
Sakkar? Elijah opened an eye.
The smithy’s gnarled fingers threatened to crush the neck of the long-armed man. He curled and whined like a whipped puppy. “But the priest don’t want no noise.”
“You’re not needed, Sakkar.” The grocer hauled Dad with an arm around his waist. He squinted with his one good eye and lifted his finger to Sakkar’s nose. “It’s just a boy whose donkeys talk to him.”
Elijah closed his eyes and lay flat in the puke. Whose donkeys talk to him?
“Sakkar…” Dragging Nathan by the armpits, the potter tried to draw himself up to full height. Failing, he crouched under Nathan’s weight and thrust out his chin. “Keep away from our friends.”
Elijah sat up and wiped his face with handfuls of grass while Sakkar slunkinto the thinning crowd and disappeared out the gate.
Dad leaned on a donkey and lifted his hand. “You men are my brothers.” He closed his eyes and let his hand drop.
Elijah pressed a palm against his throbbing jaw while he fingered his swollen lip and puffy eyelids. He touched the gash in his forehead and glanced at the blood. “You okay, Dad?”
“Nothing broken. But Nathan…” He fumbled with Balaam’s packsaddle.
“I’ll get that.” The blacksmith undid the cinch straps, swung the saddle onto another donkey, and tied it in place. The potter lugged Nathan to Balaam.
The baker shuffled by, humped over and holding his wife up by her elbow. She stared at the ground. He turned red, swollen eyes to Nathan and opened his mouth as if to speak, but then pulled his wife close to his side and followed the departing crowd through the gate.
Elijah looked back at the scene of horror.
The black cart and its donkey had replaced the drummer and his drum. A thin curl of smoke rose from the gray coals, and the priest smoothed the front of his robe.
The blacksmith, the grocer, and the potter led the donkeys out the gate with Dad, Nathan, and Elijah resting against the withers.
At the side of the road, ashes lay in flat, white circles where children had been roasting eggplant or chestnuts. The baker’s counter stood empty, his house dark.
How could a baby play in safety? Dad said Moloch came from the king.
Somebody needs to talk to the king.