Sacrificing Children in God’s Name

It’s been a terrible week for children, families, and parents here in our area and in the state of Ohio. 

There was the news of a father who shot and killed his three sons. Then there was the mother who shot and killed her eight-year-old child and shot at (but missed) her teenage son before killing herself. 

Less deadly in the short run, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill preventing parents and their doctors from making certain health care choices for their children—and then, in an ironic twist that the representatives obviously missed, on the same day they passed a “parents’ rights” bill that would allow parents the right to deny their children a full education. It would also eradicate any confidentiality for students for anything they might share with teachers or school counselors—including possible abuse by the parents. The teachers and counselors would be required by law to contact the parents to share that confidential information with the parents.

The same politicians who are so concerned about healthcare choices for children—as one of them said, “It’s all about ethics”—these same politicians are among those who have contributed to the exponential spread of guns. The leading cause of death for children in the United States in this modern era is by gunshot. 

And then we have this Bible story about Hagar and Ishmael. The situation was as follows. Abraham and Sarah were husband and wife. They had understood that God called them to be the parents of a great nation—but they had no children. Specifically, in that culture, it wouldn’t have counted if they’d had a daughter. Only a male heir would do. 

After many years, Sarah gave her servant girl, her slave really, to Abraham to see if she might produce an heir. Her name was Hagar, and she did bear a son who they named Ishmael. Last week in our reading from Genesis, we learned that Abraham and Sarah, in their old age, finally got pregnant and Sarah bore a son, Isaac. 

Today’s reading says that Ishmael and Isaac played together. But there was animosity between Sarah and Hagar—and part of it stemmed from a question about which child was the true heir of Abraham—the one who would inherit and continue the family line. Abraham and Sarah decided that since Sarah was the legitimate first wife, then Isaac would be the heir, even though he was Abraham’s second son. 

Now we have a problem. What to do with Ishmael? Well, the solution Abraham came up with—kind soul that he was—was to take Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert and leave them with some bread and a skin of water. In fact, it’s suggested in the text that Abraham claimed that this was God’s idea. Of course, the bread and water didn’t last very long. Hagar prayed that she and her son would die quickly. God then heard the cries of Hagar and Ishmael, produced an oasis in the desert, and Ishmael not only survived, but became the father of the Arab tribes.

Whew! All this suffering and death. 

Is there any take-away that is positive, good, comforting, good news? 

First, let me make an observation. The Hebrew Scriptures—what we often call the Old Testament—are unique among the Holy Writings of the world’s great religions. And they are unique in this way. They testify as much—if not more often—to the failures of the people of God to follow God’s will and God’s purpose for them. They are filled with all the pathos and brokenness of the human spirit that separates us from one another—from the common good—and from God. 

When we hear about the sacrifice of children in our contemporary news cycles—of the depravity that exists in our time—of the powerful who think nothing of tossing others of God’s children under the proverbial bus—when we hear those things, think of the Hebrew Scriptures. For they are brutally honest about the human condition. 

A second observation. Part of the depravity of the human existence is to claim that our bad behavior is God’s will. Whether it’s Abraham and Sarah claiming that it was God’s idea to send Ishmael and Hagar to their deaths in the desert, or contemporary religious and political leaders saying it’s OK, in God’s name, to send LGBTQIA+ children out into a world without appropriate medical care—or the leader of the Russian Orthodox church blessing Vladimir Putin’s massacre of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men, women, and babies—it’s all the same religious drivel—worse, an abomination.

The commandment clearly says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain,” which, at the very least means: don’t try to justify your prejudices, narrow-mindedness, ignorance, and wrong-headedness by claiming to be on the side of the Lord God, Almighty. 

What continuously trickles through even the most difficult and hate-filled texts is that God is Love. God cares for his people. Not just the official people—not just God’s Chosen People—but all people. God cared for Hagar and Ishmael. God provided for their needs. And God made sure that the first son of Abraham, to whom God had promised to make a great nation, it was through that son Ishmael of whom God said, “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 

The take-away from these texts is the contrast between God and human fallibility. We worship God, because God alone is wholly good. God alone is just. God is love. God cares as much for the weak and the downtrodden as God does for the Patriarch’s heir. 

Over time we read the scriptural texts, but we do so with an eye and an ear for the revelation of God. Sometimes it’s obvious. But more often, as with much of our existence, we discover the presence and the voice of God beneath or around or above the printed word. 

A wise scholar once pointed out that the Holy Scriptures contain the word of God . . . not the words of God. So we read the Scriptures whole—not just a proof text here and a proof text there—but the whole of God’s word and the life of God’s Son—whom St. John called the Word of God. 

Abraham was a flawed man. Sarah a bitter woman. Moses was slow of speech and sometimes slow-witted as well. The prophets point to the immorality of many in their times. The disciples certainly weren’t always paragons of virtue. But the glorious grace of God shines forth from Genesis to Revelation, God uses these and many others to reveal God’s self as she uses the flaws and the failures to make the creation whole.

May the Divine One continue to bless and redeem us and use us in spite of ourselves. 


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