Laying our Children on the Altar


The Old Testament talks of Molech, a rapacious devouring god, “…a god who required the burnt offering of children as his sacrifice. A fire would be built inside the idol, turning it red with heat… parents would place their children into the molten hands of the idol. The drummers would beat their drums so loudly that no one would hear the cries of the children…” Brian Walsh

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Horrible. We might feel grateful that such a thing does not happen today, or does it? Perhaps if we listen carefully we can still hear the cries of our children above the noise of school bells and Spotify, through the pressure of performance and testing and between the distractions of iPhones, Instagram, Netflix, or X-Box.

If we listen and look carefully it is apparent that today’s young have taken a hit in terms of their mental health. Sacrificed on the altar of parental ambition and societal expectation many children grapple with relentless nature of their everyday lives. Depression, self-harm and eating disorders are on the rise worldwide, along with stress induced illnesses.

The United Nations warns that one in five children already suffer from a psychological disorder.

In South African schools the picture does not look much different. While moods disorders abound stimulant medication is on the rise. Ritalin ensures that children are able to keep up with schedules that, according to Carl Honoure, “would make a CEO nervous”. No matter that on the inside our youth are often falling apart as they self-medicate through alcohol, substances or other addictive behaviours. 

This story of Molech is contrasted with the account of Isaac in Genesis where his father Abraham placed him on an altar to sacrifice him to God. While the two tales sound similar, these are two very different altars.


While today we do not place our children into Molech’s molten hands, there is pressure to give them (and ourselves) up to an equally demanding god. In Roman times the philosopher Seneca recommended mutilating children to make them more effective beggars. During the industrial revolution and Victorian age the issues around child labour were many, all for the sake of economic progress. Given the pressure young people are under now and the attendant issues that they deal with, is it different today?

Many families in South Africa, for the sake economic necessity, live apart. Others live apart in all but name. In 2009 the Institute of Race Relations recorded that 48% of South African children have a present father, while only 35% of children live with both their parents. We know for a child to introject their father he can be at work for no more than 55 hours a week. More than that and your children will airbrush your influence out of the picture. Even Parents are often so tired they just don’t have the energy to engage.

When we couple together the work demands on parents and the pressure to perform on children it is no wonder mental and emotional fragility is so common. Add (often unnecessary) homework into the mix and we have the ingredients for disaster. I remember when my own children returning from school with homework to complete, meant an evening of family engagement that included shouting, tears and door slamming, and that was just my wife and I. Fill in any free time with series, gaming or social media and meaningful family time all but disappears.

As Brian Walsh asks, “…are we not placing our children into the hands of a devouring god?”


There is another altar however, like Abraham we can choose to offer our children up to God. First as parents and teachers we have to put ourselves there. It’s not easy, the problem with being a living sacrifice is that we keep getting up and crawling off the altar. But making a conscious and intentional effort to put God first has to be at the start line of any race we are running.

On that foundation we then need to make sure we are there for our children. Without the love of, and time with, significant adults, young people will be stunted and mutilated like Seneca’s beggar children.  What does this relationship like in practice?

  1. Peace at home – A psychologist friend of mine says that children, “live, move and have their being, in the atmosphere of their parents relationship.” For children this is mental and emotional oxygen. Even in situations of divorced and separated parents maintaining a positive relationship makes a difference
  2. Eat together – A study by Dr Blake Bowden of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Centre surveyed 527 children. They found that those whose parents ate dinner with them five times a week or more were the least likely to be on drugs, to be depressed or to be in trouble with the law. They were also more likely to be doing well in school and to be surrounded by a supportive circle of friends.
  3. Quantity trumps quality – When it comes to children there are no shortcuts. The book of Deuteronomy tells us, in relation to God’s words, that we should, “teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” That means we have to be there at those times. Research by the National Longitudinal study of Adolescent Help shows that parental influence is needed at four key times throughout the day. Before school, after school, at dinner time and at bedtime.

If we are not laying our children on God’s altar then we will, de facto, be laying them on the altar of commercialism or some other devouring god. Placing them in the hands of our loving Father requires us to be sacrificial. It will cost us time, probably money and certainly effort. But whatever else you are working on right now I can’t imagine anything that comes close to being as important.

When Mother Theresa received her Nobel Prize she was asked, what can we do to promote world peace. She replied, “Go home and love your families.”


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