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Urban Imagination in the Old Testament: A Selective Overview

Author: Nathan Bills
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

The present wave of urbanization compels Christians to reflect scripturally on the place and purpose of the city in God’s mission. To that end, the following essay surveys various appearances of the city in the Old Testament. Some have charged the Old Testament with a largely pessimistic view of urban centers. Though the Hebrew Bible presents the city as a human construct fraught with peril, it also imagines the urban center as locus of God’s redemptive blessing.


The present and unprecedented global wave of urbanization summons Christians to imagine what role the phenomenon of the city plays in the mission of God. Christian reflection upon the city, however, does not happen in a historical vacuum. Augustine’s City of God stands unrivaled in its impact on the Christian urban imagination throughout the last two millennia. Augustine identified two societies of humankind with two cities. Those who live according to God’s will inhabit the city of God, and those who live by human standards populate the city of men. Though Augustine was speaking largely allegorically, some have charged him with bequeathing to Western tradition a negative appraisal of the city qua city.1 Fast-forwarding more than a millennium, Raymond Williams has shown that a pessimistic portrayal of the city—together with a favorable view of the country—operates as a major motif in English literature from the sixteenth century forward.2 In a similar vein, Timothy Gorringe describes Cowper’s famous line “God made the country, and man made the town” as a succinct summary of a “conventional topos of Western thought”—namely, the demonization of the city and the “idyllisation” of the country.3 The American mythos, in particular, has embedded within it a certain amount of bias against the urban environment.4 Of course, Christians in the last two millennia have not wholly demonized the city.5 Nevertheless, critical reflection upon the city, from both Christian and secular perspectives in the Western tradition, attests that the city carries negative emotional baggage.

Does the biblical narrative lend any support to such pessimism about the city? The Bible certainly offers plenty of theological grist for Christian reflection on urban environments. The city appears early and often (Gen 4, 11, 18), and continues to make regular appearances throughout, both in the foreground and in the background, all the way up to the close of the Christian canon, which takes place in a city (Rev 21-22).6 However, some Old Testament scholarship leaves the impression that Scripture has little positive to say about the earthly city, outside of an ideological praise for Jerusalem.7 For example, a significant strand of interpretation reads into Israel’s canonical witness a none-too-subtle polemic against urban society. George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald popularized a theory of Israel’s emergence in the land that cast proto-Israelites as a countermovement against Canaanite city culture.8 In their reckoning, Canaanite cities embodied the social stratification, exploitation, and human injustice that Israel’s pastoral, egalitarian community was formed to oppose. Furthermore, the Deuteronomistic History has been read as a historical retelling of the demise of the Israelite state due in large part to a failure of human institutions, centralized in and epitomized by cities.9 The prophets too have been construed as anti-urban, pointing to a restoration of Israel’s failed urban experiment in ways that hark back to an idealized pre-urban (egalitarian/desert) tradition, which is often associated with idyllic “back to nature” categories.10

There is surely truth in these observations. Though the Old Testament does not provide anything like a doctrine or theology of the city (nor is the city qua city a major topos of biblical literature), Scripture nonetheless frequently presents the city in a negative light. Much of its literature can even sound at times as if it is rejecting urban civilization. Our review of the biblical evidence will demonstrate that the Hebrew Bible imagines the city as an unavoidable human construct where power and people collide, and subsequently where lurks the potential for great harm. But it will also show that the Bible holds out hope that the city can be a context of human flourishing and divine blessing, and that Scripture does not endorse a predominately pessimistic view of the urban environment. The city is the major setting of much of what the Bible says about sin, judgment, and restoration, though not to the exclusion of the countryside. Indeed, we will see that in the imagination of the Hebrew Bible, city and countryside are tethered theologically. This essay will show that the overall biblical portrayal is more ambiguous than negative—the phenomenon of the city is shaded with gray far more than with either black or white.


The Bible is full of cities. They are a part of the “symbolic geography” of the biblical writers and more broadly the literature of the ancient Near East.11 Before going any further, it is necessary to give attention to what is meant when talking about “the city” in ancient Israel. Frank Frick describes the city as “the crowning achievement of the ancient world,” but just what constitutes an ancient city is a major point of discussion.12

The English connotation of the term “city” does not correspond to the ancient reality in multiple ways. First, ancient cities were far smaller in size and population than what the term suggests today, and cities in ancient Palestine were even smaller than most cities of their contemporary nations.13 Consider, for example, that Hezekiah’s Jerusalem covered at most 150 acres.14 Most recently, William Dever has postulated a multi-tiered hierarchy of Israelite sites in the eighth-century BCE. in which he heuristically defines an Israelite city as a site of ten acres or more with a population of 1,000 or more (using a coefficient of 100 people per acre).15 Based on these population estimates, Dever calculates that the land of Israel was home to around twenty cities, and very few of these exceeded a population of 3,000.16 Moreover, the vast majority of the population did not reside in cities. Dever estimates that only twenty-five percent of the population would have lived in communities of 300 or more people, and eighty percent of these communities were towns of only 300–1,000 people. Thus, approximately five percent of the total population dwelled in urban centers.17 These figures highlight the fact that when pondering what the Bible says about the city, one must keep in mind that the space to which it refers does not much resemble our modern cities in size or density.

Second, cities in the ancient world for the most part did not recognize the modern-day dichotomy between city and country. Most recent sociological study of ancient Israel has stressed that the city was dependent on and deeply vested in the countryside.18 Many of the “urban elite” would have been rural landowners not confined to the city (e.g., Boaz).19 Furthermore, the city gave to as well as took from the countryside, fueling the economic engine that profited all the population of its immediate environs. If a strict urban-rural divide did exist, it would most likely have involved only a small number of specialists (probably associated with the royal court) and only in the capital cities of Jerusalem and Samaria.20

Third, the main Hebrew term for “city” (⁽ îr) has a broader semantic range than its English translation suggests.21 Earlier biblical archaeologists commonly distinguished a city from a village by the presence of a wall, but the biblical authors use the term just as well for an unwalled village as for a fortified city (e.g., Deut 3:5).22 Nor does the term carry any implicit population marker, and Scripture makes no systematic distinction between city, town, and village, as there is in English usage.23 Furthermore, just as there was no uniform physical profile of the city, neither was there a uniform role for how the city related to its environs.24 The Hebrew Bible can designate any inhabited human settlement set “ideologically apart from its environs”25—whether for military, economic, religious, or social purposes—as a city, though most often cities were associated with physical features such as a wall or gate, or other monumental architecture (e.g., a temple).26

Despite this lack of definitional specificity, archaeology has contributed significantly to (and broadly supported) the biblical picture that Israel experienced a wave of urbanization with the rise of the monarchy.27 At this time, major cities in ancient Israel began to take on various and somewhat distinct kinds of functional characteristics, so that it becomes possible to categorize cities accordingly. Frick helpfully names four types of cities: (1) major (capital) cities with large populations and a symbolic presence among a host of cities; (2) administrative centers, which though not heavily populated, contained extensive water works, storage facilities, courtyards, temples, and palaces; (3) industrial cities, mainly characterized by industrial installations and craft workshops; and (4) forts that were located at strategic military points.28 Of course, many of these functions overlapped among cities, and some of the largest cities (e.g., Samaria, Jerusalem, Hazor) no doubt encompassed all of them. I might add one other significant category, the ceremonial city, to describe the urban centers that were main ritual destinations for the population (e.g., Jerusalem, Samaria, Dan, Beersheba, Bethel).29

The disciplines of anthropology and sociology shed additional light on some of the common functions of cities in ancient Israel.30 Among the most important, ancient cities were centers for trade and work-related specialties, tax collection and distribution, the administration of law and order, and the housing of nobility and/or wealthy gentry as well as specialists not associated with food production, such as bureaucrats, religious officials, and scribes.31 Moreover, by virtue of their defenses, cities offered protection from chaotic forces abroad. But the walls served an important sociological function as well, bonding people together in common cause. Most of the city’s working class denizens (peasants, artisans, traders, etc.) lived outside the gates, in close proximity to the city or in nearby villages, and in this way the city extended its dominant influence over the surrounding countryside.32

The various functions of cities comport with the biblical presentation that urban centers held powerful sway over the social, economic, and religious character of their dependents. Because of this kind of influence, the biblical witness often depicts a city, as Ellen Davis observes, “more like a person than an inert object. It has moral as well as physical character; its character grows and changes, for good or for ill. A city has a spirit, and a city with a future has a store of creative energy that enables it to respond to challenge.”33 Yet, in the biblical witness concerning cities, we will see that though cities embody the highest hopes of humankind, they also manifest the basest capacity for human sin. They can both protect and violate their inhabitants; both prosper corporate ingenuity and multiply creative evil. They magnify the effect of both the virtues and the vices of their people.34 This dialectical capacity for both blessing and destructiveness stands behind the ambivalence with which the biblical text evaluates the city as a human construct.


The biblical record includes an abundance of material related to the city and its happenings, to be sure, but outside of Jerusalem, the city is mentioned only as a byproduct of other issues.35 Nevertheless, in the biblical narrative the city appears at critical junctures in the history of redemption. In the following I will selectively trace reflections about the city in the biblical narrative in an attempt to come to some conclusions about what is an unsystematic presentation of the city in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Primeval History

The first observation to note is what is not said about the city in Israel’s story of beginnings. In stark contrast to some of the mythic literature of her contemporaries, Israel’s creation account makes clear that the earthly city has no divine prefigurement in the heavenly sphere nor is its appearance an act of creation.36 Instead of building a city for divine habitation (as, e.g., Marduk, the head god of the Babylonians, does after defeating Tiamat and creating earth), the God of the Bible plants a garden. Only on the outside of this garden, in the wider world, does the city come to be, and this at humanity’s initiative (Gen 4:17). The city, then, is a fully human establishment, leading the reader to suspect from the beginning that it will participate wholly in the weal and woe of humanity. Furthermore, given the city’s appearance so soon after the expulsion from the garden, the biblical author seems to consider it an inevitable human development. Nonetheless, the Bible is not clear whether the first urban building project is a positive or negative development.

On the one hand, Cain’s murderous actions set in motion a process leading to the construction of the first city.37 This inauspicious chain of events shrouds the city’s beginning in suspicion.38 Moreover, Cain’s acquired insecurity is a God-willed consequence of his violent act, yet such insecurity is the very thing a city is built to avoid. The connection of the city to violence perhaps reappears in the description of Nimrod, who is credited as the founder of great cities in Assyria and Babylon (Gen 10:10-12). Nimrod is portrayed as a mighty warrior and hunter (Gen 10:8-10). Does this briefest of descriptions imply that the city is necessarily tied to subjugation and violence, despite the fact that Nimrod’s conquests appear to be credited to the Lord (v. 9)? The Bible does not make the answer explicit.

On the other hand, Cain’s offense is not city building but fratricide, and the city could be understood as a development permitted by God in mercy to Cain and his sons. Furthermore, Cain’s descendants are credited with the cultivation of the arts and specialized technology, two developments associated with urban civilization. The first city, then, bequeaths gifts to humanity that the Genesis writer surely regarded as beneficial (Gen 4:21-22). Yet, these advances are tainted by the co-temporal violent aggression of Lamech (Gen 4:19-24), whose words might be taken, again, to tie together violence and advances related to city living.39 Urban society seems a mixed blessing.

The narrative about Babel may appear less ambiguous in regard to the city. Yet, the underlying polemic in this text is not against the urban project per se but directed at the sinful manifestation of human ambition that becomes exemplified in city building. In short, “the problem with the polis . . . is power,” not population growth.40 The community on the plain of Shinar wishes to construct a city in order to make a name for itself, signaling that the lust for power and control always lurks in the shadows of dreams for urban high-rises. In the ancient world, cities were more often than not built by slave labor, as Israel was all too aware, based on her slavery in Egypt (Exod 1:11). Perhaps, then, there is reason to hear in this story a polemic against the urban oppression of one group by another. Babel represents a centralization and use of authority that was engineered to thwart God’s purposes.41 The project’s success demonstrates that cities have an uncanny ability to catalyze human ingenuity, though the Bible illustrates how such a project can quickly devolve into a corrupt exercise in apotheosis. About Babel, Christopher Seitz observes:

The problem with city building is that no one can tell exactly when the appropriate need for protection and justice and organization slides over into name seeking, human endeavor in love with itself, and a false sense of independence and unity, achieved rather than granted. The story warns about this danger and lets the example of Babel stand as a signpost.42

Thus, the primeval history ends with a failed city that falters because of its aberrant ethos—though it does not necessarily pronounce the phenomenon of the city a doomed enterprise.

The Pentateuch

Cities continue to dot the landscape of the Pentateuch. Sodom, perhaps the most well-known city in the Bible other than Jerusalem, is the topic of an extended dialogue between Abraham and God in Gen 18. The people of Sodom sinned greatly against the Lord (Gen 13:13). The account of the sexual perversion and inhospitality of Sodom’s denizens notwithstanding, the text specifies only that God becomes interested in Sodom because of the “outcry” that goes up against it (18:20-21; 19:13). In other contexts, this specific language of “cry” is connected with the cry of injustice, of the oppressed against the oppressor.43 Again, the text appears to offer an episode about a city that facilitates relationships of injustice, likely pointing to Sodom’s relationship with the surrounding (and dependent) countryside.44 Nevertheless, God solicits Abraham to pray on behalf of the city. God’s exchanges with Abraham, no mere account of haggling over the city, are rather a demonstration of the lengths to which God is willing to go to save the city.45 Even though finally too few righteous exist in the city to merit its salvation, God’s actions underline God’s desire to bless the city because of the righteous therein. Furthermore, because the wider biblical witness uses Sodom as a paradigm for wicked cities (e.g., Deut 29:23; Isa 13:19-20; Ezek 16:48-50), one might also view Abraham’s intercession as one model for how God’s people ought to posture themselves toward the city.46

The Exodus narrative opens with oppressed Israel building supply cities in Egypt (Exod 1:11). The supply cities that were once their salvation (Gen 42:1-5) have become their curse. Though the motif of the city does not play a key role in the exodus, Ellen Davis astutely shows that the character of work entailed in such building projects is a main focus of the narrator.47 The account of the construction of the tabernacle (Exod 25-31, 35-40) is, among other things, a counternarrative to the oppressive work of Egypt, which Israel experienced in Egypt’s building program. The problem with Egypt is not the desire to build but the desire to build without reference to worship of the one true God—a perversion of God’s creational gift of good work. The construction of the tabernacle shows Israel the character of good work, or, said differently, how to build rightly: by observing the rhythms of the Sabbath (31:17; 35:2), by everyone offering their God-given talents and materials (35-36:7), and by keeping covenant with God through it all (32-34). Israel will need to recall these exodus-defined “building codes” when she settles into the land.

On the plains of Moab, poised between past experience (Egypt) and future anticipation of urban dwelling (Canaan), Israel receives in Deuteronomy a vision of city living.48 Up to this point in the canonical-literary context of Scripture, most reflection on the city has been negatively formulated. In Deuteronomy, however, the city is presented explicitly as a gift from God that Israel will acquire (Deut 6:10; 17:2).49 Israel must now learn how to behave faithfully as urban dwellers.50 John Goldingay nicely summarizes six concerns of Deuteronomy’s vision that are particularly pertinent to Israel’s urban imagination:51

  1. Honesty and truth in social and economic relations, as opposed to fraud and violence (17:8-13; 19; 25:13-16);
  2. A system of care for the needy as opposed to exploitation (chs. 14-15; 26);
  3. Social cohesiveness, as opposed to anonymity and/or individualism (note the language of brotherhood throughout Deuteronomy);
  4. Womanhood (ch. 15; Deuteronomy frequently adds concern for women alongside that of men);
  5. Family order and sexual relations (ch. 22);
  6. Regular celebration and joy, in the form of urban festivals (ch. 16).

In a block of text at the heart of the book (16:18-17:20), Moses instructs the Israelites on the challenge of the administration of justice in cities (16:18). That this is a main concern should not surprise the reader given the character of cities previously encountered in the Pentateuch.52 Here, though, the cities are gifts, and city administration performed justly contributes something integral to the broader vision of Israel’s existence.53 Finally, it should be noted that the blessings proclaimed in Deuteronomy imagine cities fully unified and at peace with the countryside (Deut 28:3-7).54 Deuteronomy’s urban vision integrates the concern for the practice of religion, politics, economics, and even ecology (cf. Deut 20:20) in its overall concern for city existence. Thus, Deuteronomy’s vision provides another contribution to what it means to practice faithful urban habitation.55


David’s capture and subsequent selection of Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom opened up new vistas in Israel’s imagination about the city (2 Sam 5:7-9). Jerusalem looms large in Israel’s historical, poetic, and prophetic literature.56 Regularly, Jerusalem is cast throughout Israel’s canon as a personified female figure; she is the most frequently referenced female agent in the Hebrew Bible, and perhaps the most complex of any human character.57

Theologically, Jerusalem was beset by a fundamental tension.58 On the one hand, David’s transfer of the ark of the covenant and Solomon’s construction of the temple cemented the centrality of Jerusalem as the holy city and dwelling place of YHWH—signified by the name “Zion” (1 Kings 8; 11:36; Pss 46; 48; 132). Over time a “Zion” tradition developed that celebrated Jerusalem as the special meeting point of heaven and earth (Pss 9:11; 50:2), creating a mythic aura of invincibility because of an assumed divine protection (Pss 46:5; 48; 125:1). As the location of the temple, Jerusalem was the epicenter of God’s blessing, from which every nation would receive blessing (43:3). Jerusalem and its temple were a routine focal point of Israel’s prayers (Ps 122:6-9). As long as Jerusalem stood, its people presumed a measure of security, because it was the place from which YHWH ruled the earth (Ps 99:1-2). On the other hand, many of the prophets inveighed against the city’s inhabitants for the jingoism supported by these presumptions, particularly in light of their callous covenantal unfaithfulness (e.g., Isa 1-5; 24; Ezek 16; Jer 7). Because of the people’s idolization of Jerusalem the prophets pronounced God’s judgment. Ezekiel, for example, shows that God is not monopolized by the city but can depart from God’s dwelling leaving the city to be destroyed (Ezek 10). Nevertheless, the prophets envision for the city an eventual salvation.

Jerusalem, for all its flaws, becomes in the imagination of Scripture something of a model for God’s agenda for urban life. Jerusalem as a metaphor stands for a reality and truth larger than itself, namely, the possibility and problems of God’s dwelling among any human city. Historically it is experienced as a place where evil is magnified; but many prayers and prophecies testify that the city can also survive by the creative power of God. For this reason, Ellen Davis compares Jerusalem in Scripture’s imagination to “an icon: a holy, healing image whose function is to invite worshipers into a different experience of the world and their own humanity.”59 As an icon, Jerusalem embodies a theology of urban dwelling where justice and righteousness find a home (Isa 1:21), to which people stream for its life-giving capacities (Ps 87; Mic 4:1-2), and where divine blessing finds an outlet to the far reaches of the earth (Isa 2:3; Pss 72; 134). Because of its enduring connection to God’s love, Zion could be said to be the “mother” of all good city dwelling (Ps 87:5).60 Thus, Jerusalem teaches readers both what to pray for and what to offer praise for in regard to the city.61


In no other part of the canon is the city as dominant a theme as in the prophetic literature. The prophets give expression to the ambiguity of the city just as we have seen in other parts of the canon, but the prophets provide the largest and most conspicuous picture of the city in its peril and promise.62 In a brief essay it is impossible to plot the polyphony of responses to the city in the prophetic corpus.63 Below I paint in broad brushstrokes a few of the most important truths that the prophetic literature offers to a theological assessment of the city.

To recall earlier comments, the prophets are often understood as railing against a corrupt, wealthy urban system from the perspective of the exploited, poor rural community. Indeed, the prophets inveighed against sins associated with the city (e.g., Isa 1:21-23; 3:16-17.; 5:8-13; Amos 3:9-10; 4:1; Mic 6:9-16.; Hab 2:12; Nah 3-19; Zeph 3:1-7) and the wealth garnered from exploitation of agricultural communities (e.g., Isa 5:8-10; Amos 5:11; 8:4-6; Mic 3:9-12). But to read a generalized anti-urban attitude64 overlooks the fact that the prophetic critique often concerns the totality of the population, with city names frequently standing as metonyms for a much larger population.65 Furthermore, many of the prophets themselves probably hailed from privileged backgrounds or were at least associated with cities and the wealthy power holders therein (consider, e.g., Samuel, Jeremiah, Huldah, Isaiah).66 Far from an urban polemic, those texts that castigate the city should be read instead as a sharp reminder of the degree of interconnectedness of city and country.67

The prophets were religious spokespeople who were covenantal truth tellers, warning and interpreting for urban audiences the impending judgments of YHWH.68 In the prophets, God’s judgment on the city frequently targets the city for its arrogant, persistent belief in its own security (Isa 17:9-10; Jer 7; Ezek 13:1-16; Hos 8:14; 13:10; Amos 6:8).69 The prophets regularly chide cities and their officials for not delivering on the promise of the city to be a place that fosters the practice of justice and righteousness: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers!” (Isa 1:21).70 All through the prophetic literature, it seems that cities “impress” prophets for their persistent ability to harbor evil. The defeat of the wicked “city of chaos” as a phenomenon takes a typological, apocalyptic response (Isa 24-25). The city that is the mirror of the human lust for control and power must finally die to its pride and injustice.

But if in the prophets the city frequently fell under the judgment of God, the city also was the setting for the restoration of God (Isa 2:2-4; Mic 4:1-4). In dialogue with two texts (Isa 24-27 and Jer 7), Robert Carroll develops the argument that the dialectic of judgment and restoration, of despair and hope, points to a symbolic understanding of the topos of the city in the prophets: every city may at one point be the life-giving Jerusalem-Zion or may be the death-dealing “city of chaos.” Carroll surmises:

All the cities in the Bible represent different phases of the one city—the city of humankind. . . . There is no city of god unless it be Jerusalem, an all too human city. . . . In the Hebrew Bible, unlike in the New Testament, there is no city outside the human sphere which may descend in due course from heaven nor is there a Jerusalem which is from above (Gal. 4.26) or at the end of history (contrast Rev. 21.1-4), there is only the human-all-too-human city of humankind where justice and peace may reside, along with murderers and the lovers of bribes who also live there, oppressors and oppressed together.71

Carroll has likely not given enough due to the prophetic vision of Jerusalem’s restoration in redemptive history, or to the evil that is symbolized by Babylon;72 nevertheless, his point stands that the prophetic literature as a whole testifies that no city is beyond the pale of God’s redemptive activity. For the Jews of exile a strict bifurcation between Jerusalem and the wicked city (e.g., Babylon) does not makes sense of either Jeremiah’s command to pray for the peace of the city (Babylon! Jer 29:7) or the literature of Jewish heroes and heroines within the city (e.g., Joseph, Daniel, Esther). Rather, in one sense every city was to one degree or another tinged with Babylon but also invested with the potential to be a renewed, Zion-like habitation of peace.73 Indeed, one need only recall the message of Jonah. God announces the wickedness of Nineveh (1:2), and Jonah’s message to Nineveh is devoid of hope (3:4). Yet the city exemplifies a remarkable capacity for repentance, and God, in turn, a remarkable capacity for mercy, showing that “no great city is past praying for.”74


This survey of the city in the Hebrew Bible has been selective, and I have noted that care must be taken in transferring what the Bible says about the city to the context of the modern urbanized world. Our investigation has revealed that though the Bible often exhibits ambivalence about the city, the God depicted in various parts of the canon cares about the fate of the human city. The city is not divinely underwritten, and the times when humans are susceptible to such a belief, the biblical text makes clear that God is not monopolized by any city, even Jerusalem. Still, the city is the setting for the cultivation and sustenance of civilization (Ps 107:4-9). Moreover, Zion as an epitome of the human city shows that the city has the stunning potential to manifest the presence of God.75

The city, then, is quite an important development, but one that the biblical witness recognizes is fraught with danger. This is so not because of an ideological bias against all things urban; the city and countryside share a similar destiny. Rather, people are sinful, and because cities consist of a concentration of people, they can manifest and magnify the evil inclinations of their constituents. But the concentration cuts both ways, and the prophets teach us that God does not finally abandon the city, which “bears the hope for redemption.”76 As a potential image of Zion, every city can thrive if it fosters the same environment imagined for the holy city of God.77

The human city cannot sustain itself without the saving mercy of God. In this way it is no different from any other human construct:

The city is one of a series of human devices such as sacrifice, monarchy, and temple, which are taken up by God, even though they did not arise from God’s initiative, and are worked into God’s purpose so graciously that we would not be able to conceive of worship or of Jesus or of the fulfillment of God’s final purpose without them.78

The city may represent an ambiguous moral sphere, but this does not stop the biblical tradents from treating it as the subject of prayer, praise, prophecy, lament, and hope. Surely all this attention is a show of love. Thus, if the narrative of the city is a narrative of repeated failure, it is also a narrative of faith in the power of God to create something lovely in the midst of human foundering. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps 50:2).

Nathan Bills is a ThD student at Duke Divinity School. His focus is in Old Testament, and he is particularly interested in the intersection of Old Testament theology, ecclesiology, and urban communities of poverty. In the Spring of 2013, Nathan will join the Bible faculty of Lipscomb University, where he anticipates teaching and living in this intersection. You can contact Nathan at


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Jenni, Ernst, and Claus Westermann, eds., Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Translated by Mark E. Biddle. 3 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997.

Köhler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm. Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Translated and edited by Mervyn Edwin John Richardson. 5 vols. Boston: Brill, 2000.

MacDonald, Nathan. “Listening to Abraham—Listening to YHWH: Divine Justice and Mercy in Genesis 18:16-33.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (January 2004): 25-43.

Mendenhall, George. “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine.” In The Biblical Archaeologist Reader 3, edited by Edward Campbell Jr. and David N. Freedman, 100-120. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970.

Middleton, J. Richard. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005.

Miller, Patrick D. Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

Mills, Mary. “Urban Morality and the Great City in the Book of Jonah.” Political Theology 11, no. 3 (July 2010): 453-65.

Mulder, Mark, and James K. A. Smith. “Subdivided By Faith? An Historical Account of Evangelicals and the City.” Christian Scholar’s Review 38, no. 4 (Summer 2009): 415-433.

O’Brien, Mark. “Deuteronomy 16.18-18.22: Meeting the Challenge of Towns and Nations.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33, no. 2 (December 2008): 155-72.

O’Connor, Michael Patrick. “The Biblical Notion of the City.” In Constructions of Space II: The Biblical City and Other Imagined Spaces, edited by Jon L. Berquist and Claudia V. Camp, 18-39. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 490. New York: T&T Clark, 2008.

Park, Sejin (Sam). “Cain’s Legacy: The City and Justice in the Book of Genesis.” In vol. 1 of A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam, edited by Eric F. Mason, et al., 49-63. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 153. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Roddy, Nicolae. “Landscape of Shadows: The Image of City in the Hebrew Bible.” In Cities through the Looking Glass: Essays on the History and Archaeology of Biblical Urbanism, edited by Rami Arav, 11-21. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

Rogerson, J. W., and John Vincent. The City in Biblical Perspective. Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World. Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2009.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob, ed. New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. 5 vols. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006-2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. “The Two Cities in Christian Scripture.” In The Two Cities of God: The Church’s Responsibility for the Earthly City, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 11-27. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Sheldrake, Philip. “A Spiritual City: Urban Vision and the Christian Tradition.” In Theology in Built Environments: Exploring Religion, Architecture, and Design, edited by Sigurd Bergmann, 151-70. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2009.

Towner, W. Sibley. “A Crisis of the Imagination: The Real Jerusalem Confronts the Ideal Jerusalem.” Interpretation 54, no. 1 (January 2000): 13-22.

VanGemeren, Willem A., ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Van Wieringen, Archibald L. H. M., and Annemarieke van der Woude, eds. “Enlarge the Site of Your Tent”: The City as Unifying Theme in Isaiah. Old Testament Studies 58. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Willis, Timothy M. The Elders of the City: A Study of the Elders-Laws in Deuteronomy. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 55. Atlanta: SBL, 2001.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006.

1 Philip Sheldrake, “A Spiritual City: Urban Vision and the Christian Tradition,” in Theology in Built Environments: Exploring Religion, Architecture, and Design, ed. Sigurd Bergmann (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 155-56. Sheldrake argues, I think rightly, that this is an essential misreading of Augustine.

2 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

3 See Timothy Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chs. 5-6, for a wide array of examples in literature.

4 This prejudice has undoubtedly affected the North American church’s attitude to the city. In a recent article, Mark Mulder and James K. A. Smith, “Subdivided by Faith? An Historical Account of Evangelicals and the City,” Christian Scholar’s Review 38, no. 4 (Summer 2009): 417-23, offer a succinct history of a “general urban antipathy in the United States.” They cite a variety of reasons for this widespread sentiment including “poor design, the agrarian myth, density, a militaristic ethos [associated with urban blight], political neglect, media inflammation, segregation, and racism” (423). They argue that the general failure of many American cities to develop reputations as hospitable, safe places for family life, combined with the easy escape to suburban living, has undoubtedly further reinforced an anti-urban paranoia among churchgoers, though their treatment focuses on Evangelical attitudes.

5 Gorringe, 140ff., discusses what he calls “the dialectic of cities”: the city as the locus of both human flourishing and depravity. He cites Isidore of Seville (7th c.), Abelard (12th c.), and Aquinas (13th c.) as Christian theologians who developed positive evaluations of the city. He also points out the affirming stance of the more recent secular-city and liberation theologians toward cities.

6 Observe also that the final book of the Jewish canon, 2 Chronicles, also ends with Cyrus, king of Persia, pledging to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

7 Two explicit treatments of the city in the Hebrew Bible are cases in point: Walter Brueggemann, “The City in Biblical Perspective: Failed and Possible,” Word and World 19, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 236-50, and Nicolae Roddy, “Landscape of Shadows: The Image of City in the Hebrew Bible,” in Cities through the Looking Glass: Essays on the History and Archaeology of Biblical Urbanism, ed. Rami Arav (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 11-21. Both arrive at fairly pessimistic opinions of the Old Testament’s portrayal of the city, from somewhat different exegetical perspectives. Because the focus of this essay is on the Hebrew Bible, I will say little about studies of the city outside this sub-discipline. However, one particularly influential investigation of the city in Scripture is Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), which also presents a rather grim overview.

8 George Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” in The Biblical Archaeologist Reader 3, ed. Edward Campbell Jr. and David N. Freedman (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970), 100-120; Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979).

9 See especially Roddy, “Landscape of Shadows,” on this reading.

10 Joseph Blenkinsopp, “Cityscape to Landscape: The ‘Back to Nature’ Theme in Isaiah 1-35,” in “Every City Shall Be Forsaken”: Urbanism and Prophecy in Ancient Israel and the Near East, ed. Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 330 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001), 35-44; the volume is hereafter referred to as “Every City.”

11 Robert P. Carroll, “City of Chaos, City of Stone, City of Flesh: Urbanscapes in Prophetic Discourses,” in “Every City.”

12 Frank S. Frick, The City in Ancient Israel, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 36 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 1.

13 William G. Dever, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 48-49, provides a helpful, comprehensive chart of biblical sites in the eighth century along with estimates of acreage and population. He points out that Palestine’s poorer agricultural production severely limited the ability of any city to sustain itself. Thus, Palestinian cities were de facto smaller than their Mesopotamian counterparts (74).

14 Ibid., 55. See comparisons of populations to other ancient cities in J. W. Rogerson and John Vincent, The City in Biblical Perspective, Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World (Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2009), 6.

15 Dever, 74. He explains that “settlement archaeology” estimates five people per household, twenty households per acre, which yields a population average of 100 per acre (71-72).

16 Ibid., 48-49; cf. Michael Patrick O’Connor, “The Biblical Notion of the City,” in Constructions of Space 2: The Biblical City and Other Imagined Spaces, ed. Jon L. Berquist and Claudia V. Camp, The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 490 (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 30, who judges that the average city in pre-Hellenistic Israel was 20-30 acres in size.

17 Dever, 80.

18 See Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, eds.,“Every City,” particularly the contributions of Grabbe, Coote, Kessler, and Nefzger.

19 Lester L. Grabbe, “Sup-Urbs or Only Hyp-Urbs? Prophets and Populations in Ancient Israel and Socio-Historical Method,” in “Every City,” 32, 107, contends that the concept of “urban elite” as opposed to “rural elite” owes more to the model of the medieval city than life in antiquity.

20 Ibid., 112; “The concept of a ‘parasitic’ city is usually a caricature.” Cf. Dever, 206-9, 237-39, and his deductions of social hierarchy based largely on the Samarian ostraca.

21 See the entries for “עִיר” in Ludwig Köhler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. and ed. Mervyn Edwin John Richardson, 5 vols. (Boston: Brill, 2000); Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996); Willem A. VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, eds., Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Mark E. Biddle, 3 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997).

22 Dever, 112.

23 Although cf. Lev 25:29-34 and Josh 21:12. These English categories are not unambiguously clear either, which leads O’Connor, 25-26, to characterize the word “city” in translation as a calque—a term “that transfers into another language a range of meanings found in the source language.”

24 Ibid., 27-28.

25 Richard Fox, Urban Anthropology: Cities in Their Cultural Setting (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 31, cited in Timothy M. Willis, The Elders of the City: A Study of the Elders-Laws in Deuteronomy, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 55 (Atlanta: SBL, 2001), 14.

26 J. Andrew Dearman, “City,” in New Interpreters Dictionary of Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 1:671; A. R. Hulst, “עִיר,” in TLOT, 2:880-883; Dever, ch. 5, surveys various physical characteristics of a city from an archaeological perspective.

27 Volkmar Fritz, The City in Ancient Israel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995), ch 5. It bears repeating that Israelite culture was still characteristically agrarian.

28 Frick, 234-36. Cf. other typological classifications in Fritz, 117-18; Ze’ev Herzog, “Cities: Cities in the Levant,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992),1:1038-41; and O’Connor, 31-34.

29 O’Conner, 32.

30 On these functions see Rogerson and Vincent, 4-7 (also n. 18); Dever, 206-27.

31 Dever, 233-35, reasonably argues for a middle class whose shops and even perhaps residences were located in the commercial sections of cities.

32 These villages are sometimes referred to as daughters of cities; see, e.g., Num 32:42; Ps 48:11; Isa 16:2.

33 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 176.

34 Gorringe,145-46, cites parallels with the opinions of many modern secular urban theorists who also express this dialectic in their evaluations.

35 Brueggemann, 236.

36 See the discussion of Patrick D. Miller, “Eridu, Dunnu, and Babel: A Study in Comparative Mythology,” in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays, JSOTSup 267 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 125-30.

37 Ibid., 130-31. Miller argues compellingly that Cain’s son, Enoch, is the one who builds the first city.

38 O’Connor, 19: “That the proto-city was founded by the proto-murderer does not argue a high regard for city life, but the city does solve the problems posed by the curse while presumably taking advantage of the divine mark.”

39 John Goldingay, “Is God in the City?,” in Key Questions About Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 273.

40 William P. Brown and John T. Carroll, “The Garden and the Plaza: Biblical Images of the City,” Interpretation 54, no. 1 (January 2000): 5.

41 Frick, 206-8, and Rogerson and Vincent, 23, take this line of argumentation. J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 223, also notes that the single language of Babel’s residents is better understood in light of the neo-Assyrian imperial practice of imposing a unified language on conquered foes. This makes better sense of Gen 11 following on the heels of Gen 10, where multiple languages are already in use (vv. 5, 31). See Middleton’s account for a compelling defense of the Babel narrative as an attack on imperial civilization and its attendant violence.

42 Christopher R. Seitz, “The Two Cities in Christian Scripture,” in The Two Cities of God: The Church’s Responsibility for the Earthly City, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 21. Seitz also offers a nice summary of the primeval history: “These early Genesis stories, before God calls Abraham, are about the establishment of limits, painful but necessary, and in the end beneficial. Exposed are the limits within which blessing can be experienced: in sexual relationship, in social relationship, in knowledge, in the desires of the heart, in human ambition, and in human labor” (19).

43 E.g., Gen 4:10; Exod 2:23-24; 3:7. In the Hebrew Bible the tri-literal root for cry (zā⁽ aq) frequently denotes a cry for help in the context of an acute situation of injustice or suffering (see A. Konkel, “זָעַק ,” NIDOTTE, 3:827-30). As such, it is usually a cry that is directed either implicitly or explicitly to someone who can provide relief. For a comprehensive account of the cry in the Hebrew Bible, see R. Boyce, The Cry to God in the Old Testament (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

44 Goldingay, 279.

45 Nathan MacDonald, “Listening to Abraham—Listening to YHWH: Divine Justice and Mercy in Genesis 18:16-33,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (January 2004): 25-43, demonstrates that a “bargaining” interpretation does not fit the text. See also Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 359-62.

46 Wright, 360.

47 Ellen Davis, “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 25-40.

48 Indeed, Deuteronomy’s overall direction has a distinctly urban flavor. Brown and Carroll, 7, make the intriguing point that because God’s name dwells in one particular urban sanctuary, the city “serves as the definitive setting” for the promulgation of torah (Deut 4:44-45), and “much of Deuteronomy is comparable to a city charter.” They note further the six urban centers of refuge that Israel is commanded to set up (4:41-43; 19:1-13) as contributing to the importance of the city in Deuteronomy’s overall vision.

49 Deuteronomy, though, also warns that the enticements of the city can lead Israel astray (e.g., Deut 8, 10).

50 Sejin (Sam) Park, “Cain’s Legacy: The City and Justice in the Book of Genesis,” in A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam, ed. Eric F. Mason et al., Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism153 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 1:49-63, develops the intriguing interpretation that the city as an institution becomes theoretically viable only after Sinai. Until this point, cities are doomed to fail in the absence of covenantal standards of justice and righteousness necessary for organizations of people larger than the family unit—the pattern of which is born out in Genesis’s ancestral narratives.

51 Goldingay, 274-75.

52 Some scholars consider Deut 16:18-17:20 to be very revealing of the main concerns of the redactors: Deuteronomy as a “polity” or “constitution” for (post-exilic) Israel.

53 On this topic see Mark O’Brien, “Deuteronomy 16.18-18.22: Meeting the Challenge of Towns and Nations,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33, no. 2 (December 2008): 155-72.

54 Davis, Scripture, 158.

55 Again Goldingay, 275, with a more prescriptive statement: “Deuteronomy implies that we should both be realistic about how things and people are, but also be visionary about the ideals we affirm and then specific in the way we bring the two together. That is the vocation of society’s lawmakers, economists, and planners. People concerned about the city often pay their respects to the First Testament by nodding towards the eighth-century prophets, but the Deuteronomists provide at least as suggestive a role model for practical involvement in society. If we as the Church want to play a part in the shaping of urban policy, we need to do that by nurturing the economists, lawyers, planners, and civil servants in our midst.”

56 For an overview, see Leslie J. Hoppe, The Holy City: Jerusalem in the Theology of the Old Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000).

57 Dearman, New Interpreters Dictionary of Bible 1:676.

58 A tension that has in no way dissipated: see W. Sibley Towner, “A Crisis of the Imagination: The Real Jerusalem Confronts the Ideal Jerusalem,” Interpretation 54, no. 1 (January 2000): 13-22.

59 Davis, Scripture, 163.

60 Ibid., 167.

61 Goldingay, 281, makes the insightful point that the Bible does not tell us to pray for the city but teaches us how to do so: “The Psalms point us towards the disinterested kind of prayer that begins from human helplessness and lays hold on divine mercy because that is all there is; at many points in the city that is all there is. They also point us towards the disinterested kind of praise that gives God the glory for the joys of the city and for the wonder of that new Jerusalem which is perhaps even now coming out of heaven from God.”

62 Frick, 209-31; Carroll, 47-61.

63 Archibald L. H. M. van Wieringen and Annemarieke van der Woude, eds., “Enlarge the Site of Your Tent”: The City as Unifying Theme in Isaiah, Old Testament Studies 58 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), is a recent collection of articles that demonstrates the promise of attending exegetically to cities in the prophetic material.

64 See, e.g., Blenkinsopp, 38.

65 E.g., “Judah and Jerusalem” in Isa 1:1; 2:1; Jer 19:7; 27:20; 29:2; also “Samaria” for the northern kingdom in Hos 7:1. See Grabbe, “Sup-urbs or Only Hyp-urbs?,” 113.

66 Grabbe, “Sup-urbs or Only Hyp-urbs?,” 117-18. Though there is a strong “wilderness” tradition that might at first blush seem to favor the rural over the urban (e.g., Jer 7:21-26; Hos 9:10), Grabbe demonstrates as well that the comparison is not rural/urban in these texts but wilderness/cultivated.

67 Davis, Scripture, 159. On this whole matter, see the proposal of Walter Houston, “Exit the Oppressed Peasant? Rethinking the Background of Social Criticism in the Prophets,” in Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, ed. John Day (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 101-16, who argues that the oppressed of prophetic concern mostly resided in the city or very near it.

68 Thus Goldingay, 277, derives this application: “A prophetic ministry involves drawing attention to facts and threats, to make it difficult for government or nation to ignore clouds that can be seen on the horizon. The task of propounding alternative policies . . . is more the job of lawmakers and economists than of prophets. It is easy to take up a role that is half way between prophet and social reformer, and risk being less effective at either. Prophets took part in public debate by trying to make people face facts” (italics original).

69 See Roddy, 14-15.

70 All Scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

71 Carroll, 60 (italics original).

72 See my comments above and Seitz, “Two Cities in Christian Scripture,” although, admittedly, Seitz is working out of the Christian canon. Very little in Isaiah paints Babylon in a positive light (Isa 13-14; 21; 46-47; cf. Jer 51-52).

73 Carroll, 56.

74 Davis, Scripture, 156. On the question of whether a city’s moral identity is contingent or absolute in Scripture, see Mary Mills, “Urban Morality and the Great City in the Book of Jonah,” Political Theology 11, no. 3 (July 2010): 453-65.

75 Seitz, 11, quips that “the city is no more of a problem for God than the country. Both places have their challenges, their potentials, and if anything the city holds far greater prospect for manifesting the presence of God than the country (Ps 46:4-5).”

76 Brown and Carroll, 6ff., list six themes in Scripture that attest to this hope: city as God’s gift, city as setting for sustenance, city as setting for wisdom and torah, city as setting for God’s Spirit, city as city of God, and city as a garden.

77 Seitz, 14.

78 Goldingay, 278.

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