In the ancient world, what key structure made a group of houses into a city? What purpose did it serve?
In Genesis 10:8-10, we see a city builder named Cush conquering people and building cities. For him, what were cities all about? In Genesis 11:1-4, we see another major city project underway. Why were these people constructing a city?
How is the purpose of God’s garden in Eden similar to or different from the purpose of cities operating with the logic of Cain’s city?
We might think that God plans to do away with cities altogether, but there’s a twist. What is the surprise of the biblical story as it relates to cities? Why is this significant?
Read Matthew 5:1-16. Although Jesus does not focus on cities in this passage, he does describe the ethics of God's Kingdom, and he compares his followers to a city on a hill. How is the mindset in Jesus' “city” different from the mindset in Cain's city and/or Babylon?
Take time to discuss other themes, questions, or key takeaways from what you learned about the biblical theme of the city.
Genesis 11:1-8Genesis 2:8-14Genesis 4:2-10Genesis 4:11-16Genesis 4:23-24Genesis 4:19-222 Samuel 52 Samuel 112 Kings 24-25Matthew 5:14-16Revelation 21
Jon: Near the beginning of the story of the Bible, a man named Cain becomes jealous of his brother, who’s getting God’s favor.
Tim: And God tells Cain, “Be careful with your anger because sin is a monster that wants to consume you. But you can rule it.”1
Jon: Cain gives into the monster and murders his brother.
Tim: And as a result, God sends Cain into the wilderness. And there, he builds the first city in the story of the Bible.2
The First City [00:30-01:25]
Jon: One man builds an entire city?
Tim: Well, in the ancient world, a city was a group of homes surrounded by a wall. It’s for protection. Cain’s afraid that someone might find him and kill him.
Jon: Okay. Got it. The wall makes it a city.
Tim: Exactly. And then the city of Cain goes on to breed a culture of revenge and violence. Later, one of the city’s warriors, who’s like a corrupt king, boasts in a song, “If you threaten, or slap me, or wound my honor, I’ll kill you.”3 This is the mindset of Cain’s city.
Jon: The monster that Cain let within has now become a monster that people live within. The city is bad news.
Tim: But it doesn’t have to be. The city of Cain is also where music is invented, along with metal-working and animal domestication.4
Jon: So cities can be a place where we create abundance for everyone. But give the city enough time, and that monster will eventually take over.
What Babylon Represents [01:26-02:36]
Tim: Right, like the next city, founded by a giant warrior king,5 who builds a city with a tower that reaches up into the heavens to make their name great.6
Jon: This is Babylon, which will one day spread its violence throughout the land, conquering many nations.
Tim: Yes. Babylon is the biblical image of a monstrous, violent human city. And this is all tragic because the city is the opposite of the safe garden home that God originally put humans in.
Jon: So ancient cities have imposing walls for self-protection to keep resources inside.
Tim: But the garden is protected by God with a spring at its center that flows out into rivers that share its goodness with all the land.7
Jon: Babylon has a tower at its center to reach up to the heavens.
Tim: While the garden has the tree of life at its center—God’s heavenly throne and presence touching down on the land.
Jon: The mindset of the city is self-preservation and peace enforced by the threat of death.
Tim: But the culture of the garden is peace through generosity because there’s always enough to go around.
Jon: Let’s go back to the garden!
Tim: Yes, you would think so! But the surprise of the biblical story is that God plans to bring his garden to the city.
God’s Garden-City Gone Wrong [02:37-03:50]
Tim: Yeah! Let’s look at King David, who God appointed to lead Israel. He chose for their capital city to be …
Tim: Right. And when David brings the throne of God’s presence up to Jerusalem, the city becomes an image of God’s garden-city. There’s abundance for everyone and peace—for a time.9
Jon: Right. Until David becomes like Cain. He gives into that inner monster and murders one of his soldiers, so he can take that man’s wife.10
Tim: And so this begins the tragic story of Jerusalem’s corruption through the kings from David’s line. And While a few kings do try to stop the monster, most give in. And so the garden-city becomes a den of robbers full of greed and violence and oppression.11
Jon: And eventually Babylon, an even bigger monster, takes them out.12 Maybe the garden-city isn’t realistic after all.
Tim: But Israel’s prophets maintained hope that God would one day create his heavenly city here on earth, with streams going out and the nations streaming in—gardens and feasts and peace and no more death.13
Jon: This sounds like more than just a new city. This sounds like the dawn of new creation.
The City on the Hill [03:51-05:37]
Tim: Yes! It totally does! And it’s actually this hope that brings us to the story of Jesus. In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was ruled by a violent King Herod.14 And when Jesus began announcing that God’s heavenly kingdom was arriving here on Earth, he didn’t even go to Jerusalem or its leaders.
Jon: Yeah, he went to the hills and towns of Galilee, sharing good news with the poor and the unimportant.15
Tim: And then, Jesus took his followers up onto a hill and said, “You all are the city on the hill that will shine its light to the nations.”16 And then he taught his followers the ethic of God’s city, which is the opposite of the mindset of Cain’s city and of Babylon.
Jon: Instead of protecting life and keeping peace with the threat of violence …
Tim: Jesus taught his followers to create peace by sharing generously, even with your enemies, and to preserve life through love and forgiveness, even if it costs you. This is what it looks like when the heavenly city comes to Earth.17
Jon: But weren’t the prophets expecting that God’s new city would be Jerusalem?
Tim: Well, Jesus said that the Jerusalem of his day was corrupt and headed for destruction.18 And this stirred up trouble with the leaders of the city.
Jon: So, to keep peace, they used the threat of death to get rid of Jesus.
Tim: But when Jesus stood on trial, knowing that they were going to have him executed, he said he was about to be enthroned as king of God’s heavenly city.19
Jon: Wait, you can’t become king by letting your enemies kill you.
Tim: You can if you are stronger than death. In fact, this is the only way to transform the mindset of Cain’s city: to overcome the fear of death by trusting in the power of God’s eternal life that raised Jesus from the dead. This is the power that streams out from Jesus into the world today.
The City of God [05:38-06:25]
Tim: And so the earliest followers of Jesus called each other to seek the well-being of their cities, while trusting that their true citizenship was elsewhere.20
Jon: You mean the new Jerusalem, the city of God.
Tim: Yes. And when followers of Jesus gather and share together, they can begin to taste the life and love of that heavenly city right now in the present.
Jon: And so the story of the Bible doesn’t end with humans building a city up to Heaven.
Tim: No. It ends with God bringing his garden-city down to the land.
Jon: The heavenly Jerusalem, full of abundance for all the nations with the river of life flowing through its streets.21
Tim: And at its center is the crucified and risen Jesus on the throne. And the city walls will be decommissioned because the gates of this city will never be closed.22