Scripture has been read from a rural or small town perspective by many (including myself) who have then questioned God’s creative purposes in the city. The Mennonite Church commissioned a study in “urban church extension” a number of years ago because, among other reasons, “the urbanization of our society is having as great an effect upon our churches as persecution did during the first generation.” Some have placed significance on the fact that Scripture begins in the garden, records both rural and city living, and ends in the city. The Messiah when on earth loved one city enough to weep over it (Matthew 23:37). Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Where, then, does the city fit in God’s creative design?
The usual meaning of the term “city” in the Old Testament is “a fixed settlement which is rendered inaccessible to assailants by a wall and/or other defence works”. The most frequent term for “city” is ir, found in the Old Testament 1,090 times. It may come from the root gyr, meaning “to protect” or the root gwr, meaning a “mountain”. Moreover, the word “city” in Hebrew is frequently modified by the adjective mibsar, meaning “fortified”. The city, then, was a walled place for protection.
The origins of the city have come under great debate. Was the city the consequence of Cain’s murderous act or part of God’s creative plan? Was it good or bad or morally neutral? Jacques Ellul argues that the curse of Cain extends to the city and that the city is therefore an impossible living arrangement. Christopher Seitz counters that the “city is no more a problem for God than the country”. While the founding of the first city is often attributed to Cain, Cain names the city after his son, the godly Enoch, and the Hebrew wording in Genesis 4:17 (Cain “was building” the city) suggests that Cain only began the building and Enoch completed it.
Only two passages in the Bible (Jeremiah 2:2 and Hosea 2:14-20) glorify the wilderness ideal and imply a negative opinion of cities. In Hosea 2:5-7, however, the writer also reflects negatively on the wilderness. Ray Bakke notes that sin was invented in the garden, job experienced his grief in a rural area, and there are many positive images of the city in the Psalms. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. concludes that while the city is a place for possible abuse, it is also a place of refuge and community, and that to see the city as evil misses the root problem. Sin’s roots are in the hearts of men and women.
Even though Cain received assurance from God that no one would kill him in retaliation for the murder he committed, he left his homeland and shortly thereafter built a city (Genesis 4:17). Frank S. Frick points out that Cain’s city-building was a human response to God’s curse and an attempt to provide security for himself apart from the provisions of God. The assumption is that if he had trusted God, there would not have been the need for building a city for the sake of security.
Great city-building efforts are described in various Scriptures. The building of the city of Babel (Genesis 11) is just one example. This was an attempt to build the strongest fortification yet, with a citadel reaching to the heavens. The motivation to “make a name for ourselves” was based in pride, and the resistance to being “scattered” went against God’s initial command to fill the earth (Genesis 1 :28). Cities became a problem when the walls were trusted more than God was. Yet it was this misplaced trust and not the city itself that was the object of God’s judgement.
Psalm 46 speaks of God as a mighty fortress. Israel repeatedly experienced a God for whom the walls of a city were of little consequence, as in the example of Jericho. The security of Jerusalem was grounded not in its walls but in the presence of Yahweh in the city (Psalm 48:5-9; 76:2-3).
The beginning of community took place in the garden. God enjoyed His companionship with Adam, but realized that it was not good for Adam to be “alone”, so He gave him Eve, and human community was born. Later, with the coming of sin, the ideal nature of this community was broken, but the fact remains that God created men and women with a hunger for community. Frank S. Frick says. “God … wanted us to gather in city-communities because He created us for togetherness.” A city driven by human interests will end up in turmoil, but as people seek out genuine community with each other and refuse to give in to individualism, God’s creative design will be experienced
The original creation vision included the idea that people should have dominion over all things (Genesis 1 :28), and it is logical that this would result in the development of civilization. This mandate came before the fall and was not lifted when sin came.
Roger Greenway contends that while human beings were created in the garden, their destiny as God’s image bearers and as social beings lay in the city. But for the curse, cities would have been without sin, and all urban life would have contributed to human welfare and God’s glory.
When God created humanity in His image, He created men and women with the ability for creativity. Fulfilling the creation mandate thus leads to the achievement of civilization and progress in technology. Yet, this in turn can lead to a sense of power, overstepping boundaries and the mistake of self-sufficiency. Thus, the city can bring out the best and the worst of human nature. Yet, God is not only responsible for the origin of the world order, but also for its maintenance and even its re-creation. What makes Jerusalem or any city great is the presence of God and His people.
Building cities for shelter, community and the development of civilization provides people with the opportunity to follow God or rebel against Him. Robert Linthicum describes the city as the location for the battle between the God of Israel and the god of this world. The city has nothing inherently wrong with it. Sin happened in the garden, in the country and in the city. The potential for good and evil is everywhere, and ultimately the battleground is in the hearts of people. Judgement fell on cities like Nineveh, Babylon and Jerusalem because they had opposed the Lord, not because they were cities. Jerusalem remained as a place of safety only for as long as she served the Lord and observed His commandments.”
As the divine intention for the garden was frustrated by sin, so the divine intention for the city is also frustrated. However, as God demonstrated in renewing the covenant with His people, His purposes are people-centred, and this is not limited in space and time. Any city, then, can become a Jerusalem, a dwelling place for God.
Ewald Unruh is director of evangelism for the Canadian MB Conference. This article is based on a paper written while on a sabbatical study leave at MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif.
For further reading
Stuart Murray, The Challenge of the City: A Biblical View (Sovereign World Press).
James P. Wiebe, Mega Cities: Biblical Lessons for Today (Winnipeg, MB: Windflower Communications, 1999).
Paul Peachey, The Church in the City (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1960).
Peter S. Hawkins, ed., Civitas: Religious Interpretations of the City (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986).
Frank S. Frick, The City in Ancient Israel (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1977).
Floyd McClung, Seeing the City with the Eyes of God (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1991).
Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970).
Christopher R. Seitz, Word Without End (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998).
Don C. Benjamin, Deuteronomy and City Life (New York: University Press of America, 1983).
Ben C. Ollenburger, Zion: The City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult (Sheffield, England: jSOT Press, 1987).
Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1965).
Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
Roger S. Greenway and Timothy M. Monsma, Cities: Mission’s New Frontier (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1989).
Robert C. Linthicum, City of God City of Satan (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1991 ).