After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”
But then something else happens: human beings want to be together, so they build a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)
Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want,” Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.
It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, often sees the city as a place favoring human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..
The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.
It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.
The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.