February 10, 2015 by Kambili M.A. Chimalu
I was sitting in a church event, listening to the preacher talk about Abraham and Sarah and how God blessed them. The preacher zeroed in on the blessing that God granted Abraham and Sarah in the form of an heir, Isaac. With the preacher waxing poetic about Isaac, a thought just entered my head, “what about Ishmael?”
The story of Abraham and Sarah is well known to any good Christian. It is used to illustrate the infinite power of God and His ability to bless people even when it seems impossible. Sarah is held up as an exemplar to women who are seeking the fruit of the womb and Abraham serves as a reminder to men that God rewards faith. Isaac is a culmination of God’s love/promise to his servants, so preachers often focus on the story of Isaac and his parents.
But what about Ishmael? Preachers do not focus on Ishmael a whole lot, but when they do, it is to show how humans can, in our impatience, presume to play gods in our own lives. He is seen as the result of Sarah’s haste for the gift of a child and her unwillingness to wait a little bit longer for God’s time. In the end, Sarah demands that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother away because Ishmael must not share in her son’s inheritance. Ishmael is sent away.
This is where my discomfort comes in because as I ponder the case of Abraham, Sarah, and Ishmael, I realize that often, in our society, children are punished for the sins of their parents. Children are given all sorts of labels to denote their not-too-stellar status in society:
1. Illegitimate Children: Going back a few hundred years, we get cases of children being labeled illegitimate because their parents could not keep it zipped until they married each other. Kings sowed their oats and the resulting children were considered illegitimate. Married men impregnated their mistresses and the children were considered illegitimate. Children missed out on inheritances, loving family units, and were looked down on by society all because of something that they could not control. The parents commit the blunder, but the children get punished.
2. Bastards: This is in the same vein as illegitimate, but I want to bring this one down home. As a result of how our society is structured, “bastard” children are often ridiculed. “Bastard” daughters are weary of their marriage prospects because people are often warned about marrying someone that was “born at home.” The sons are weary because in the application of inheritance customary laws, they do not fit anywhere. As a result, the issue of land inheritance becomes tricky. Again, parents commit the indiscretion, but the children bear the brunt of it.
3. The Children of Absent Fathers: This covers the children whose fathers keep two families: the primary family and the secondary family. The fathers always choose their first/primary families, so the children with these absent fathers are tucked away in one corner, hidden from the primary family. The fathers only visit, if at all, when a little time can be carved out from the everyday grind of nurturing the primary family.
The underlying thread is that children become the casualty of the decisions made by adults. As I thought about the often overlooked Ishmael, I thought about the millions of children that have been punished and are presently being punished for the sins of their fathers and mothers. Children do not choose to come into this world. Two adults bring them here, so it will be unjust to punish innocent children over circumstances they could not control. Let us take a little time to empathize with all the Ishmaels in the world.