Urban Theology 7: The Bible and the city
Part 2 of David Smith’s book Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world, turns to biblical and theological perspectives on the city. Chapter 6 is ‘The Bible and the City; from Patriarchs to Prophets’. It’s 50 pages of detailed discussion so it’ll take more than one post to sketch.
He starts with the brilliant Jacques Ellul and his influential anti-urban reading of Genesis and the subsequent biblical narrative in his The Meaning of the City. The city is linked to Cain and to the curse. It is a place of darkness that consumes its inhabitants; a technological wasteland where God is absent.
Harvie Conn, alternatively, develops an overly positive theological vision of the city using Gen 1:26-28. The ‘fill, rule and subdue the earth’, he says, is a mandate for city building and procreating to provide citizens for the city! The city, for Conn, is to be embraced.
But such approaches assume the Bible speaks with one voice on the city. The reality, says Smith, is that there a range of theological perspectives on the city within the Scriptures and this diversity ‘does justice to the complex reality of empirical cities.’
The big theme of this chapter is the alternative biblical vision of Israel to cultures of the ANE: cultures built around the power of elite rulers, kings and Pharaohs and expressed most powerfully within their cities. The Tower of Babel is best interpreted, says Smith, as an assault on Babylonian pretensions and empire building. This is not so much a judgement on the city per se (Ellul) but on the accompanying ideology of the city.
Smith has an extended discussion of the conquest of the cities of Canaan here but I’ll come back to that.
Deuteronomy, Smith suggests, is best read as an urban text as Israel enters Canaan. It would shape life in the capital city of the new nation – Jerusalem. It would be a place of Shalom in a disordered world. ZION is Israel now with her own city – a crucial tipping point in the history of Israel, the creation of the holy city of David. At last a ‘home’ to live in and to form an identity around (2 Sam 5:9-10).
God is with David and his city. Here is an alternative form of urban existence – an urban sanctuary, God’s city for which God is to be praised (Psalms 47, 48 for example). A source of joy and beauty. There is a celebration of this city. This is the city as a source of blessing to the whole nation and beyond (Ps 107:35-6).
I think this is an overlooked way of seeing God’s purpose for Israel: after tribal nomadic existence, in the Promised Land, would be a new and alternative form of urban existence – an urban culture reflecting Yahweh’s will for his people. Where God would dwell with his people, ‘Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God’ (Ps 48:1). [This theology sets the scene for the perfected heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation.]
Yet there remains an ambivalent attitude toward the king and the city. Samuel remembers the harsh rulers of the ANE. His objection is that, like the ANE kings, the king of Israel will take whatever he wants from the people (1 Sam 8:11-17). He would supplant the rule of Yahweh for his own ends. And as history progresses, Samuel’s original fears would be realised, both in terms of the unfaithfulness of the king, but also in the unfaithfulness of the city.
But that’s for the future post.
I guess I am an ‘Ellulite’ by disposition. How about you?
So the big point for me here is the (convincing) rejection of Ellul’s anti-urban reading of the biblical storyline.
Personally, I love escaping from the oppressive noise, squash and pace of urban life to walk in the empty beauty of an Irish mountainside or sandy beach. Being in the city can be oppressive; it sure doesn’t bring me the same freedom and joy. I can’t do much more than 1 day of a ‘city break’ – except maybe for Rome! I’d rather be in West Cork or Donegal.
But complete ‘freedom’ from urban life is probably, like Ellul’s rural dream, an illusion. Staying in the wilderness would soon turn pretty ugly (have you seen Into the Wild and the guy trying to cook a moose? ‘nough said).
This chapter poses a question to us Christians living in the (fallen) city.
Seems to me it is a calling to love the city and work for its redemption and restoration, just as one day the fallen Jerusalem will meet the heavenly city. I say ‘calling’ because that is a call to mission – to commitment, to hardship and to presence in the city, rather than fleeing the city.