Continuing our progress through David Smith’s Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world.
We were in the middle of a big chapter, ‘from patriarchs to prophets’, tracing developments in the place of the city in Israel and the wider world up to the end of the OT period.
There is a continuing theme or tension here between the city as the sacred dwelling place of God and a place of corruption – where the city itself becomes oppressive.
There is a degeneration, as Samuel had warned, from initially good beginnings under David (the blessing of God in Zion), to loss of this memory under Solomon (1 Kings 11:11). And increasingly a prophetic confrontation develops against a hard-edged urban religion and its associated activities of building, taxes, exploitation of poor, forced labour, erosion of sexual ethics.
This is well captured in Eccl 5:8-9 and an increasing alienation from anonymous elites profiting at the expense of the poor:
8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.
Lament psalms pray for reform of the city. And much of the prophetic tradition of Israel focuses its critique on the city and the need for reform. This internal critical tradition is unrivalled in the ANE.
The prophets Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah face stiff resistance from within Israel – see Jeremiah 26:7-11 for the prophet facing a lynch mob, accused of being a traitor for speaking out against the city. Hosea is one of the most dramatic examples of prophetic critique against the erosion of sexual fidelity in an urban world – a city without love. Lamentations is the loving lament of what has happened to the city after the judgement of God has fallen.
Yet there is hope for the city. Is 40-55 in exile in Babylon speaks of the hope of return to a renewed city of God – of a world transformed. (Is 65) and the redemption of the city; a place of peace, plenty and security: God’s great shalom.
And one of the hugely surprising things in this vision (in the context of the warring empires of the ANE) is that this Isaianic vision includes the nations of the world and their cities: Ninevah, Damascus, Tyre and Babylon. These were enemies: representing expanding empires, violence, exploitation, unjust trade, and idolatry. However, also included is hope of God’s grace and mercy for these cities and nations. (Is 19:18-25, :20,23). There is even the vision of blessing the pagan city from within – see Jeremiah’s exhortations to the exiles in Babylon to settle down and seek the peace and prosperity of the city (Jer 29:4-7)
“We may conclude then that cities reflect the true greatness of human beings, but they also display the disastrous consequences of human greed, selfishness and propensity to violence. Which is why, according to the Jonah story, God looks upon the most corrupt of urban societies and asks his worshippers “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jon. 4:10)
Where does this all leave us?
Smith’s recurrent theme is the tension between God’s judgement on the structural evils associated with urbanisation within Israel: a loss of meaning and a loss of relationship; of wealth without a social ethic; a turn away from God and an associated turn away from neighbour. God’s judgement on human hubris.
Yet alongside judgement is his continuing longsuffering and concern for the city; for justice and reform; for the city to be marked by love for God and love of neighbour.
He will get to these sort of questions in chapter 8 – but all this raises the issue of what structural features of our modern globalised world do you think fall under the judgement of God?
And how and where are Christians demonstrating divine compassion, hope and justice in the midst of that corrupted, unequal and increasingly urbanised world?
In the meantime the next chapter continues the story of the city into the NT, ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’
Comments as ever welcome.