And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch (Genesis 4:16-17).
There are certain things that are almost universally accepted as good, right, beneficial, and the way things “should” be, and few such things have such power over us as the idea of civilization. Ever since the Greeks looked upon themselves as “civilized” and everyone else as “barbaric,” our history and our language assumes the overwhelming benefit of civilization over any substitute. We are all expected to conduct ourselves as if we had been civilized; barbaric behavior is frowned upon. Our history books tell a story of the development of civilization out of– and often in the face of as well– the forces of chaos, primitivism, and barbarism. Since civilization seems to be so wonderful, we might think, the Bible would commend such a message. Surprisingly, the Scriptures are a bit more ambivalent about civilization than we might imagine.
Civilization means cities: centralized locations wherein different people maintain different tasks to the benefit of all. The Scriptures do not reveal that Adam, Noah, or Abraham build cities. Instead, the first person to build a city is none other than the brother-murderer Cain!
The story is told in Genesis 4:1-17: Cain is Adam and Eve’s first child. He grows up to be a farmer; his brother Abel becomes a shepherd. They each bring the produce of their work as sacrifices before God, but God only accepts Abel’s sacrifice. Cain, angered and jealous, kills Abel. As a consequence for this crime, God condemns him to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth which will not produce its fruit as a response to his toil. Cain expects that his fellow man will kill him if they find him; to this end, God provides some type of mark upon him so that this would not happen. Cain therefore departs from God’s presence, heads east of Eden to the land of Nod, marries, has a child Enoch, and builds a city named Enoch in honor of his son.
So many questions about this story center on what the Genesis author has not told us: who are all of these other people? Where did Cain’s wife come from? What was the mark placed upon him? While we understand that Adam and Eve had other children (Genesis 5:4), and Cain’s wife and these other people likely came from that union, most of these questions remain unanswered. We should not miss the story that the Genesis author is trying to tell us while wondering regarding all the matters he has left unrevealed.
In his punishment, Cain was separated from the presence of God, went east of Eden, and built a city. To build a city is to reject wandering as a fugitive on the earth; to build one while separated from God, separated from the Garden in which God placed man and from which man was expelled, is quite telling.
The Genesis author consistently demonstrates a level of ambivalence with cities and civilization. The next city of note mentioned features the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9): Babel, or Babylon, will develop into a civilization and empire that will become paradigmatic for the godless oppressive power against God and against God’s people. The next cities of note are Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 14, 18, and 19, which also become paradigmatic for sinfulness. Later, when Jacob buys some land and settles down a bit near Shechem, his daughter is there defiled, and his sons take vengeance upon the whole city (Genesis 33:18-34:31). Meanwhile, God calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to live in tents, maintaining a far more “primitive” lifestyle than provided by the big city. Abraham, after all, was called out of the big city of the day– Ur of the Chaldeans– to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:27-12:1).
It would be tempting to roundly condemn civilization on the basis of these and other texts, but such would be going too far. Egypt, its cities, and its civilization provide refuge from famine in Canaan. The Israelites will eventually live in a settled, civilized existence in the land which God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The city of Jerusalem will become paradigmatic for the location of God’s presence among God’s people, ultimately becoming the image of the glorified church at the end of Revelation. Even though the Roman Empire would be chastised for its opposition to the Kingdom of God, such chastisement never extended to many of the benefits of civilization provided by the Romans.
One can serve God in the city; one can serve God in the fields. One can be “civilized” and serve God; one can be “primitive” and a “barbarian” and serve God as well. The Bible’s critique of civilization, however, remains a good reminder for all of us that whereas we might think of civilization in purely glowing and rosy terms, there are hazards involved as well. “Culture” in cities tends to magnify man over God; certain sins are easily found within cities. Cities and civilization may bring some people together but all too often pulls people apart, both from each other as well as from the earth that sustains them. God has often worked among the shepherds, summoning Abraham from the city to the hinterlands; God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us, growing up far from the big city in the rural hinterland of Israel.
Civilization has provided us with innumerable benefits; our current population and way of life is entirely impossible without it. But let us not be fooled into thinking that civilization is the be all and end all of everything; it comes with a price. Let us continue to live in our civilization, keeping its challenges in mind, and praise and honor God!
Ethan R. Longhenry