The function of cities is to enable humans to better achieve peace, harmony, prosperity, and happiness. How those functions should be handled depends upon what kind of city is involved. For this we may turn to the Bible for insight and guidance.
As in all things, however, the Bible is realistic about cities and does not romanticize them. Its discussion of the origins of the city — indeed, of the origins of civilization — realistically points to one of the tragic dimensions of human society. According to the Bible, found beginning in Genesis 4, Cain, the first murderer, is also the founder of the first city . That city does put an end to his wandering and provides him with protection against those who would seek to punish him further — beyond God’s intentions — for his deed. This squares with the etymology of the Hebrew word for city, ir, which apparently comes from ur, the Semitic word for tower, a defensive point.
The city, then, is a product of necessity. It is also the mother of invention since it is the Cain family which accounts for most of the world’s inventions, from military weaponry to musical instruments, clearly conveying the understanding that it is precisely the same impulses that bring humans to murder and engage in similar undesirable behavior that also bring them to the achievements that make civilization possible.
It cannot be accidental that Cain, the first murderer, also founds the first city (v. 17). In some respects, this can be seen simply as the linkage between urbanization and violence upon which many have commented. But the Biblical story is more subtle than that. Cain murders out of passion. He is not a reasoned killer, not cold-blooded nor one who murders for the love of it. He simply cannot control his passions at a particular moment or in a particular situation. Significantly enough, cities are places where density and the pressures related to it lead people into uncontrollable acts of passion, acts which are often violent in character, far more so than rural areas. That is one dimension of the Biblical account. Another is that people who commit violence need to protect themselves against retribution. The earliest cities in the Bible are primarily places of protection. Historians of the ancient Near East generally agree that cities originally came into existence for defensive purposes, as places where the inhabitants of a region could come together to collectively defend themselves.
Soon cities become widespread, but, as we know from archaeology, the biblical city was hardly more than a village. Hence it was more often than not a rurban entity, that is to say, it was a settled point dependent upon agriculture and, indeed, engaged in it.
The Bible describes four city archetypes. The Bible actually suggests a paradigm of urbanism in relation to biblical morality, through those four archetypical cities: Sodom is the utterly corrupt city in which sexual perversion is rampant and the milk of human kindness entirely absent, it deserves heavenly punishment because it does not even have ten righteous men within it. Babylon is the metropolis and polyglot city, in which everything can be found — good, bad, and indifferent. It is doomed to destruction if it cannot cleanse itself. Nineveh is the metropolis that does repent and is welcomed back into the community of the righteous accordingly. Jerusalem is the city founded on righteousness, designed to be the spiritual center of the world once Israel repents and the nations recognize God’s sovereignty.
Thus the Bible model distinguishes between the possibilities inherent in homogeneous and heterogeneous cities. To be frank, the Bible does so, contrary to the modern spirit which has made pluralism a good in and of itself, not merely a necessity in heterogeneous societies. The Bible seems to prefer the right kind of homogeneous city and, indeed, fears for the consequences of the cosmopolis which is constantly prone to lapsing into hamas or random violence, the source of the destruction of civilizations, according to the Bible.
The Bible also provides for repentance or return, in Hebrew, teshuva. The biblical-Jewish concept of teshuva suggests how, contrary to simple-minded modern thinking that progress as inevitably unfolding, the possibility of teshuva enables humans to cope with the tragic flaws built into them.
In this sense, Nineveh is a very special biblical model of a city. It is a city in which the whole population returns, does teshuva, to the annoyance of Jonah, the Hebrew prophet who had very reluctantly accepted God’s mission to bring the city the message of its sinfulness.
For much of the world today, the problem is how to strive for Jerusalem while living in Babylon. The Babylonian heterogeneity of our cities is real enough. So, too, for many of us, is the striving for Jerusalem.
For this the Bible suggests that there is a right way and a wrong way. Sheer pluralism is not the right way. It may be the only way by which all may live together, failing the possibility of pursuing the right way. But we must not, nay, dare not, accept that good for more than it is — a tactical measure for enabling humans with different cultures, viewpoints, and expectations to live together expediently. That, in itself, is no mean goal, but beyond that there is a higher goal — the goal of walking in the ways of God, of accepting and living according to man’s covenant with God. For that, pluralism alone is not the answer.
This is not to say that the Bible seeks a homogeneous world. The Bible makes clear provision for the legitimate existence of different peoples and cultures under God. In that sense the Bible is truly pluralistic and multi-cultural. The Bible does not see all humans becoming part of one world state, like ancient Rome, or one world church. What the Bible sees for the proper future is not the abolition of differences but that, retaining their differences, all nations will go up to Zion and call upon the Lord by name.
Thus, as we strive to live together in our Babylons, we must decide to do so according to the terms of our covenants. Those covenants begin with the first two great covenants of the Bible — that of Noah and that of Sinai. Those covenants should constitute our moral commitments. They must be moral commitments consonant with the biblical teaching.
The genius of biblical thought and religion lies in this concept of covenant, of humans able to come together either with God or under God and to agree to bind themselves to a set of fundamental rules and an ordered system for maintaining them that enables people to live free yet in an ordered and moral manner. Covenant is a pact based first and foremost on a moral commitment. It leads to what some have called ordered liberty and which was called by the Protestant Reformers “federal liberty.” “Federal” is derived from the Latin foedus, which is a translation of the Hebrew word for covenant, brit. Thus, federal liberty is the liberty to live within the terms of one’s covenants. It stands in contradistinction to natural liberty which, as the popular song of years ago suggested, means “doin’ what comes naturally,” restrained only by nature.
For the Bible, this is not freedom but anarchy and leads to hamas. Indeed, the biblical description of God’s first formal covenant with Noah after the Flood (Genesis 9), explicitly specifies that God brought the Flood because of the hamas that had come to pervade the world, and in order to prevent hamas he made his covenant with Noah to provide for ordered liberty. In Jewish tradition the Noahide covenant binds all humans, unlike the Sinai covenant which is specific to Jews and those who accept the Jewish way. Rabbinic Judaism includes a full discussion of the Noahide covenant and how it applies to all humans to serve as a foundation for human society.
In a practical, day-to-day way, there may be (and normally are) very few differences between the liberties that individuals gain through the doctrine of federal liberty and those most people exercise as natural liberty, but federal liberty allows a society to protect itself by defining what is outside of the pale of acceptable moral behavior, and where adjustments need to be made for the protection of liberty accordingly. For example, free speech is a protected right or liberty that we all cherish. Inciteful, racist speech, on the other hand, we have learned through experience, must be kept out of bounds, not only in our sentiments but in an actionable way, for the sake of the preservation of a certain kind of society and of the lives and liberties of those within it.
The idea of civil society, a modern invention to make room for private and public voluntary as well as governmental spheres in the political and social order, has made it possible for the world’s liberal democracies to insist on standards of justice, if not righteousness, and the application of those standards to all. But, as we have discovered, civil society alone is limited in its ability to pursue justice by an inability to distinguish only between what is just and what is not. For that, we need to revive another early modern concept, commonwealth, or the ideal of a moral community, the political extension of federal liberty in operation, just as federal liberty is the political extension of covenant in principle.
We need civil society to enable us to pursue justice. We need commonwealth to enable us to pursue righteousness and the solidarity that makes for a community.
The Babylons of this world cannot be commonwealths. That is one of the reasons why they often have difficulty even being civil societies. Even for Babylon to become a proper civil society, it must follow the path of Nineveh. The path of Nineveh at least offers the promise of turning into the path of Jerusalem.
But, as we have learned, it is easier for Babylon to become Sodom than to take the other path. Moreover, there is reason to believe that Babylon often takes the path of Sodom not by choosing to be but by exaggerating the principles of pluralism and natural liberty that enable it to exist in the first place.
It is not easy to live in a world that accepts more than one standard as proper, even good, but to accept a diversity of standards does not mean to accept all standards as equal or equally good. As we move into an age where all of us are more and more involved in a world order that is growing tighter, we must develop the ways to discriminate among standards even as we recognize that the old way of a single standard may no longer be adequate to our immediate needs as humans.
Advocates of Babylon as the preferred city have modest expectations. They see living together in a pluralistic environment which fosters mutual respect as a modest goal but the best that humans can do, that those who have the urge to invent one new Jerusalem or another have inevitably brought humanity to the edge of disaster. It must be said that they have a point that cannot be ignored or dismissed. By leading a revolution of modest expectations, striving for a decent Babylon, they have given us much. One of the things that they have given us is the possibility of striving for a decent Jerusalem, more modest than the utopian new Jerusalems of the past, more careful and attentive to the limitations of the striving for new Jerusalems, but they also have made us more aware of the limits as well as the possibilities of Babylon. The challenge that lies before us is how to learn from their modest expectations, yet move beyond the deficiencies of those expectations to achieve something more.