Do I like cities?
I ask myself that every time I find myself in one. See, on the one hand I hate being crowded and shoved around. I hate the traffic. I hate the lack of convenient toilet facilities.
On the other hand, I like the quirky book shops and the unexpected expressions of culture, and I love the moments of hidden history when you turn a corner and discover, say, that you’re standing on top of an abandoned underground station. And the same factors that make all these things possible also exacerbate the claustrophobia and the dangerous driving. Do I like cities?
Maybe that’s why I like the idea that the writer of Genesis had a similar problem. After all, the whole thing starts with paradise and then goes rapidly downhill, with cities being a symptom of that. Those who remain nomadic, herdsmen, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, they’re the ones who walk with God. Even when the Hebrews end up living in Egypt they’re kept apart because the Egyptians hate shepherds. Those who settle, however…
Well, look at who founds cities. Cain. The descendants of Noah’s cursed son. The inhabitants of Babel. It’s going too far to suggest that cities are inherently sinful, but Genesis seems to be suggesting they can be places of compromise and, yes, flat out evil.
The classic example is the moment when Abraham and his nephew Lot go their separate ways. Abraham has already been prompted to leave one city, Ur, to follow God, and life as a nomadic shepherd has turned out to be blessed. But now he’s getting too successful; there’s not enough room for his flocks and those of Lot, so they decide to split up. And Lot makes the pragmatic (if a little self-serving) decision to move to the Plain of Jordan, which has abundant water supplies…
“…Like the Garden of The Lord.”
And that’s where the red flag goes up, because it sounds like everyone is trying to get back to Eden, to reclaim the Garden of The Lord without The Lord. And so Lot goes where the water is and pitched his tents near Sodom. You know, the place where feral mobs gang rape strangers.
Inevitably, things go bad.
But here’s the interesting thing: Abraham’s looking for a city too, but he’s not trying to build it; he’s waiting for God to do that. The writer of Hebrews, centuries later, says that “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
It’s not cities that are inherently problematic, it’s living without God.
Hebrews really riffs on this. Abraham was looking forward to a specific city, the Heavenly Jerusalem, of which the earthly Jerusalem was the symbolic precursor. Heck, there might be something of this in how the only king Abraham plays tribute to is Melchizedek, king of Salem, which not only foreshadows Jerusalem but, via Hebrews, the rule and priesthood of Christ himself.
So the city to which Abraham was looking, that Jerusalem echoed, that finally restores Eden in a way that Sodom never could, is the heavenly city of Revelation 21. And why is that?
Well, to quote John at the height of his vision:
“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Don’t live for the city, live for God. The city is not salvation, and only Christ makes all things new.