“Succor us out of the city.” (2 Samuel 18:3)
I my new novel (to be unabashedly promotional) the protagonist muses that “You can love a city, but don’t expect it to love you back.” All cities in particular have aspects that disappoint us. But the somewhat surprising thing is that since the first Neolithic villages some 12,000 years ago we have inexorably become more urban. Today, more that half the world’s population are city dwellers, and more are on the way to town. That is surprising because there has, historically, been so much distrust and negative feeling about cities.
“The city is full of lies and robbery.” Nahum 3:1
I have always been fascinated with “anti-urbanism” and years ago wrote a monograph and a conference paper about it. In the latter I alleged that children’s literature could be a contributor to negative feelings about cities, but the bigger culprit I felt was “scriptural,” in particular the Bible.
“He that is in he city, famine and pestilence shall devour him.” Ezekiel 7:15
The Bible wasn’t the only ancient document that was hard on cities, but it is the source of much of the Western world’s negative attitudes about cities.
”This city is a cauldron,” Ezekiel 11:3
I have a hypothesis about why the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, is so down on cities. There is a religious point of view if you recall that it seems every time the Hebrews went to town or even got close to one something went wrong. Early on, Cain, who killed his brother Able, departs for the land of Nod to become a builder of cities (patron saint of real estate developers?). Later on Lot, a son of Abraham finds himself and his family in Sodom (no need to elaborate in what has become of the name of that city), a place of so much sin that the Bible tells us an angel was dispatched by God who said, “Save yourselves with all haste. Look not behind you. Get as fast as you are able to the mountain, unless you be involved in the calamity of the city.”
“Thy wife shall be a harlot in the city.” Amos 7:17
That they did, but even after being warned not even to look back on such a sinful place, Lot’s wife did, and was, as we all know, turned into salt (garlic, I think).
“Cursed shalt thou be in the city. Deuteronomy 28.16
Most people know this little story, but they don’t know, or choose not to remember that things were not un-sinful out of town either. Lot left Zoar (where he went after the flight from Sodom) and retired with his two daughters to a cave in an adjacent mountain. Lot’s daughters mistakenly believed they were the only people to have survived the devastation (Genesis 19:30-38). They assumed it was their responsibility to bear children and enable the continuation of the human race. According to the plan of the older daughter, they got their father drunk enough to commit incest with him. This is the same sort of thing that produces kids that drool and pull the wings off flies in West Virginia.
“Every city shall be forsaken.” Jeremiah 4.29
Cities were not only bad places for the Hebrews to keep their covenant with their god, Yahweh, but they were sometimes kept captive, as they were in the “Babylonian captivity.” Cities were places that often had their own “city gods.” These gods were local, but the important thing is that they were competition for the “universal” god of the Hebrews. Later, the Romans had the same tradition, even extending it to household gods. Competitive gods would cause problems of allegiance in the city, just as it does between nation states today.
“Men groan from out of the city.” Job 24:12
But, ultimately, in my view, the main reason that the Hebrews had a bad attitude toward cities is that they, local gods aside, cities represented the rise of secular power, a competitive power to that of the patriarchs who ruled life for pastoral nomads and agricultural types like the Hebrews.
“And the spoiler shall come upon every city, and no city shall escape.” Jeremiah 33:5
In Old Testament times, most people did not live in cities, but were farmers, herders and villagers. Large cities were not the norm, but their wealth, military power and high walls posed a threat to the non-urban both materially and culturally.
“The rich man’s wealth is his strong city.” Proverbs 10:15
The culture of the Hebrews and other non-urban people’s was the clan, headed by patriarchs, who were both political and religious leaders. Their Yahweh was not a god of place, but a god that was with them everywhere. Cities threatened that structure when the Hebrews got too close to them, tempting youth the way it did, to gamble away the family’s money they way the ”prodigal son” did. (“How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Jerusalem . . .”).
“Men . . . give wicked counsel in this city.” Ezekiel 11:2
In the culture of the clan tradition ruled, old ways were sacrosanct. But the city represented, then as it does now, change, a quest for more and better. New and different ideas and the development of “civil” law threatened the authority and credibility of the elders of the clans, a circumstance that resonates today in the clashes between Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban in Afghanistan and secular authorities. Those who claim that the law of the state should be sharia law have predecessors extending past the birth of Islam and well into Old Testament times.
“The city is full of perverseness,” Ezekiel 9:9
The 14th century Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun stressed that, while the urban way of life led to high achievements in human development, urban populaces inevitably degenerated into corruption, self-indulgence, sexual perversions, and the loss of community and personal identity. The nomadic way of life was contrasted favorably with urbanism.
“Cursed shalt thou be in the city.” Deuteronomy 28:16
Deep as they are in the Western tradition, and despite golden ages of cities such as Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and the scientific, cultural and aesthetic achievements of many cities since biblical times, the warnings and injunctions persist like a dormant virus. It appears in the American era in many forms. America, too, was a predominantly agricultural society when it started with over nine out of ten people being farmers or small towns folk. American wasn’t intended to be an urban society as indicated by the fact that there weren’t even governmental institutions set up for cities, allowing them to be taken over by “political machines” and bosses.
“I have seen violence and strife in the city” Psalms 55:9
The idea of the city as a place of individual transformation was prominent in the literature of he late 19th and early 20th century. In America, books like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie portrayed big cities as places where women could lose their virtue and guileful characters lurked to take advantage of the country bumpkin. The theme was not dissimilar than that of biblical admonitions about the wicked ways of the city.
But, despite the warnings of Babylon, of Sodom, of Gomorrah, or Jericho, of the evil ways of cities the buildings of The City of Man grew to tower over the spires of churches. The City’s science and technology rivaled the putative miracles of Scripture. The City’s media became a clarion for the accomplishments of man, not God. Despite the ravings from the pulpits, the power of the City over that of the Patriarchs grew.
“And the Patriarchs shall come to the City, and it shall become their Temple.” Falwell 28:14
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.30.2008)