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.

5 thoughts on “Urban Theology 7: The Bible and the city

  1. Patrick,

    To add to the discussion.

    My wife, Stacey, argues that like the kingship the temple is more God accommodating himself to the wishes of his people instead of his intention. God intended to be mobile in the Tabernacle so that he could be with his people; a state that God returns to in Jesus and then in sending his Spirit upon us. Later in the story we tried to but God back in the building. (You can check out Stacey’s argument here: http://thinkingworship.com/2011/10/19/whats-wrong-with-the-temple/). Maybe the city of Zion isn’t everything it is made out to be.

    The other factor that interests me is how Paul focused on cities when planting churches. Clearly cities weren’t all that bad.


  2. Hi Andrew,
    I think Stacey’s argument chimes in well with Smith’s – capturing the ambivalent nature of the city. I like her 5 hmmms! Raises wider theological questions about God’s accommodating himself within human culture within the story of salvation.
    Will definitely come to Paul and cities …

  3. I am a classic Paulinist! I would recommend Gunther Bornkamm’s Paul (Paulus), he was a student of Bultmann. I cannot follow him eveywhere, myself seeing Paul as the author of all the classic Pauline corpus.But Paul the strict Jew, from the city Tarsus and living in the Diaspora, a Hebrew and Jewish Hellenist, by grace became both a Christian and the great Apostle to the Gentiles.

  4. I too was an Ellulite, an urbanophobe; but I’m recovering. UNlike biblical times cities nowadays are, ironically, more dangerous than the wild. This is why we have suburbia – escape the city’s danger but retain its comforts. But cities are where you find all of human life at close quarters and therefore they become the most beautiful places on earth, and the most evil – a city like Calcutta becomes a “City of Joy” and a hellhole. Maybe Scripture’s ambivalence is about right in our global urban world.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    I’m currently doing some studies into the City Spirituality, specifically Biblical Spirituality. My view is that Graham Ward’s view of the city is much more nuanced when it comes to the complicatedness of the city. Yet I think your already feeling in the right direction with your ‘Into the Wild’ example. The fact is that the rural areas are impossible to untie from cities. They are all part of ,what de Landa calls, an assemblage. You only choose to move from a less concentrated node of the assemblage (nature – in service of the city as the product you use to escape the city) to a more concentrated node of the assemblage of the city.

    My 5-cents worth then,

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