The First City


What is a city?

What do you think of when you think of a city?
ir: (ʿîr [eer]): city, town
In the bible, a city is almost always fortified. It is a place surrounded by walls and has it’s own ruler or king.
When we think of cities today we often think of large places where many people live or work, but in ancient biblical days a city could describe a place completely different than what we might think of in 21st century North America.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary Defensive Features

Walls and towers protected ancient cities. The wall, which surrounding an entire city, was the primary defensive structure.

During the Genesis days (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the most common form of political organization was a city-state structure. Not necessarily tribes, but groups organized around urban hubs surrounded by a wall. Each of those was a little kingdom. These kingdoms would also have a network of unwalled towns around them. These surrounding towns were called daughters.
Today, we typically look at the size of a city and label it a town, city, village, or something. In the ancient Near East and biblical view, a city was a city if it had a wall around it. Towns could be situated around cities. The largest city of the time was about 120,000 people, but cities typically only had thousands to tens of thousands for their populations.
For reference, today Tokyo is the largest city in the world with a population of 38 million people. Oklahoma City has a population of over 1 million. The state of Oklahoma has a population of over 4 million. The population of Cordell is just under 3000.
The theme of “Cities” in the bible is an interesting one. When we follow themes throughout scripture, they are often used to form a common thread that is continued from the beginning to the end. For example, God speaks to people on mountains, so when you read about someone going up a mountain, God is probably going to give them a message.
Trees are another place that God connects with people. You could follow themes such as the first born theme through the bible. The theme of creation is often referenced, and even shown in reverse as a de-creation. Jesus tapped into themes when He taught, and even fulfilled prophesies that were steeped in thematic language and actions.
The city is an interesting theme because it is mostly used negatively throughout scripture, but later becomes a good thing. When you see cities in scripture, something bad is normally happening or the city is portrayed as doing something other than God’s will. Comparatively, the garden theme is used as the city’s opposite.
Garden imagery is used to depict good things and God’s ideal way of living. In a way, that imagery was used to describe man’s curse to forever work at yet be unsuccessful at creating the garden life. The life God intends for humanity to live. Instead, what we see happens is that man builds cities. Cities that provide protection and provision, instead of the garden. Instead of relying on God’s protection and provision.

The Human City

The human city is depicted in scripture as a negative thing. The first city is one that Cain builds after he murders his brother and is exiled from the land. The next two cities are built by Nimrod, who builds Babylon and Nineveh. Then we see Sodom and Gomorrah and their “daughters,” the towns surrounding them.
Ezekiel describes the guilt of Sodom being their arrogance, the fact they had an abundance of food, and prosperous ease, but they didn’t help the poor and needy.
Ezekiel 16:49 NLT
49 Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.
Isaiah describes Babylon as the most glorious of kingdoms, yet it will be devastated like Sodom and Gomorrah because of it’s evil.

The City of God

So cities are bad, until we see the city of God. The city of God is used to describe a good city. It makes you stop and think, “Shouldn’t God be in a garden? Aren’t cities bad? Why does He show up with His own city that is good?
Psalm 46:1–7 ESV
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. 6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Even if the whole earth is destroyed, God is in His city. She (the city) can’t be moved. His city is in the highest of high places. God is our fortress. Those within the walls of God’s city are safe.
Zechariah even merges the evil human city with the city of God to give us an image of God’s redemptive power reaching down to humanity’s evil city and transforming it into something completely new. This new city will be so full that many will have to live outside and God will become the protective wall around all of it…
Zechariah 2:4–5 NLT
4 The other angel said, “Hurry, and say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem will someday be so full of people and livestock that there won’t be room enough for everyone! Many will live outside the city walls. 5 Then I, myself, will be a protective wall of fire around Jerusalem, says the Lord. And I will be the glory inside the city!’ ”
Zechariah 2:10–11 NLT
10 The Lord says, “Shout and rejoice, O beautiful Jerusalem, for I am coming to live among you. 11 Many nations will join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they, too, will be my people. I will live among you, and you will know that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me to you.
The walls that humans built are no longer necessary or even effective. God will protect the city with His wall. The walls are no longer needed to protect humans from other humans because there will no longer be evil in the city or between the people. God’s wall will also provide light, just like the wall of fire that lead Moses and the Israelites.
Revelation 21:22–27 NLT
22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. 25 Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. 26 And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. 27 Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
God provides the light, and the protection, and the gates will never be closed. In other words, instead of getting rid of the cities and their walls and replacing them with a new garden, God incorporates the city into the garden. He heals and transforms human cities and their walls rather than destroying them. The walls no longer serve a purpose so they are decommissioned and made of jewels.

Merging The Garden And The City

We see that God merges His garden with a city. It is important to note that humans didn’t just abandon gardening to make cities. Humans did a little city and garden merging of their own. Let’s think a little about the world where the people of the ancient Near East lived.
Imagine for a moment that you live in one of these cities or were a farmer outside of one and you want to travel to another city. When you step off of your property you would be staring at a vast land of nothingness. Just brown sand and rocks as far as you can see. It might not be too difficult to see the next city because it will be in the next place where you see green.
Cities naturally formed in places where you would find rivers and springs, which usually came from hills or mountains. If you found a good spring, you might fortify it to protect yourself from other mean humans. So you build a wall and create a city.
Rulers of cities would often have depictions such as this one in their gardens or throne rooms. People believed that these areas were places where god’s provided life for the people, and the rulers were appointed by these god’s. This one depicts the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, enjoying his garden.
In effect, the palace gets turned into a symbolic garden oasis. Little Edens, sort of. Genesis describes Eden as the place where a river flows from it to water the garden and split into four large rivers to water the earth. Specifically, the rivers actually flow to four real places. These rivers are associated with Egypt, Jerusalem, Assyria, and Babylon. They may be bad cities, but their source of life comes from Eden. The Heaven-on-Earth river.

Why Build A City?

If cities are bad and gardens are good, why would Cain or any other human build a city? What does it mean for Cain to build a city in the bible? Let’s look at the lead-up to the decision for Cain to build a city.
After the description of the rivers that flow from Eden, God said this…
Genesis 2:18 NLT
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.”
God is going to make a helper for the human. The word for helper is “ʿēzer (ay’-zer).” It translates as “helper.” Dr. Carmen Imes translates the word to “ally.” Personally, I like the way Dr. Tim Mackie translates the word to “delivering ally.” He says that he defines it this way because in other places the word is used in scripture it describes God. God is the help for His people or for His city when the world is falling apart.
So it means that the “ezer” is the only one who can provide the deliverance that is needed to provide safety or accomplish the mission. In other words, there is something wrong, a challenge, or an obstacle, and without the ally the need can’t be fulfilled. So humanity can’t do what God calls them to do without the ezer, the delivering ally, so God puts the man into a trance…
Genesis 2:21–22 NLT
21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. While the man slept, the Lord God took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the opening. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man.
So God takes a part of the man and then He does something with it. This is our next important word. He “makes,” He “fashions,” God “BUILDS” a woman. The Hebrew word is “bānâ (baw-naw')” and it means “to build.” In the book of Genesis, there are three things that get “built.” Altars, cities, and a woman. Noah builds an altar, Nimrod builds Nineveh. Abraham builds an altar. Moses builds an altar. Cain built a city.
It’s an awkward use of the word, and it was done on purpose. It is linking thoughts and images for us to follow. In summary...
Here is a vulnerable human with an obstacle who can’t do what God has called him to do so God provides an ezer, a delivering ally, by building it for the vulnerable human.
We aren’t going to get into it, but it is important to note that Hebrew authors liked using word plays in their writing. The word “ezer” is connected through word play to other words that follow it in the story. The word that described the humans as “naked” and then later the word that describes the garments of skin that God made for them to cover themselves. It is an interesting side note that I didn’t want to skip over.
It’s interesting because when the human couldn’t do what God called him to do, God provided the helper. Later, that helper lead to the nakedness being a problem. God again provides a solution to their problem with the skin. The three words are all connected. Helper, naked, and skin. Specifically, and most noticeably, the Hebrew words for helper and skin are almost identical.
How is any of that relevant to Cain building a city?
The story of Cain and Abel is very well known, but if you want to brush up on the details read chapter four of Genesis. They both make offerings to God, Cain offers fruit of the ground, Abel offers the firstborn of his flock. God had regard for Abel and his offering, but none for Cain and his offering. Cain gets mad and God tells him that he has a choice to do good or to not do good.
Cain has a choice. The bad choice is depicted as an animal crouching at the door. He must rule over it. The language is very similar to the role his parents had of ruling over animals. In a way, Cain is at the tree of doing good or bad, like his parents, and in the same way he makes the bad choice. Cain rises in anger and kills his brother.
In further similarity, God questions Cain as He did Adam and Eve and Cain has the same reaction of evading the question. God responds to Cain saying, “the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” This is important because it is another word play. God created humans, “Adam,” from the ground, “Adama.” The word blood is connected here because it is the word “dam.”
So God created “Adam” from the “Adama” and Cain killed an “Adam” and returned his “Dam” to the “Adama.”
In other words, Cain took it upon himself to become God and take away life. Surprisingly, God doesn’t kill Cain, but instead spares him. Cain is afraid someone will kill him, but God promises vengeance on him if anyone kills him then gives him a sign. The word for sign is almost identical to the word for the “skin” God provided Adam and Eve. It is another play on words that links the stories.
Cain’s story is basically a replay of his parents. He is given a choice to do good or bad, he chooses death, God spares him, he gets exiled, he receives help from God, and then he goes East. Even the Hebrew words used in the two stories are remarkably similar. Even what Cain does next is similar. We specifically focused on what God built for “Adam.” He built an “ezer,” a delivering ally.
Cain builds too. He builds an “ʿîr (eer).” A city.
Genesis 4:16–17 ESV
16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
God built a delivering ally, Cain built a city. This is another play on words as the two Hebrew words are almost identical. When you link all of these words together in terms of their meaning, they play the exact same role.
In a moment of desperation, God provided the ally. God provided the skin for Adam and Eve and the sign for Cain. In Cain’s moment of desperation, God provides something for him as a means to preserve his life but Cain wants to do it his way. Cain has already taken on God-like roles. He took the life of an “adam” by spilling “adama” and now he will provide his own security and delivering help.
In parallelism to God building the “ezer” for the human, Cain builds the “ir” for himself. God built the deliverance for Adam, and instead of relying on God’s deliverance, Cain is building his own delivering ally.
The first time a city appears in the bible it is a sad, tragic necessity, from the human’s point of view, to protect ourselves here outside of Eden. It is a sad reality that we could not be further from the garden at this point, and it is supposed to make us sad.
When we read and see cities in the bible we are supposed to see that and make that connection when we sit and ponder what we study. We are supposed to notice the contrast. Throughout the rest of the Hebrew bible, when you see cities described with any figure of speech or metaphor, they are always portrayed as women. “Lady Jerusalem,” “daughter Zion,” or the holy city “coming down as a bride.”
Humanity’s decision to rely on our own ally instead of God’s. When we see God’s holy city coming as a bride for her husband, according to Tim Mackie, it is an image of “God bringing a new Eve in the heaven form of the heavenly city coming down to marry Earth.
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