The Wicked City

Chapter 1 imageAs each year goes by, more and more of all mankind live in cities and find themselves more or less cut off from surroundings in which the forces of nature predominate. Nearly two-thirds of all Australians live in only five cities, leaving a vast continent largely uninhabited. Even in New Zealand there are rural areas which are less populated today than at the beginning of this century. (1900)

If this trend continues worldwide, the time may come when all human beings will be city dwellers. If so, our descendants will dwell not just in one of many cities but in one vast global city. So we need to ask ourselves — where are we really heading with rapid urban growth? Is city-dwelling so wonderful that we can have no doubts about this trend?

For a generation or so — but for not much longer than that — various professional people, such as town planners, economists, sociologists, anthropologists and even theologians, have been turning their attention to the rapid expansion of city-dwelling, as some of the titles of their books make clear — Cities in Transition, The New World of Urban Man, The Secular City. They have been looking critically at this modern process of urbanization and asking some fundamental questions. In this short series of studies on the city, I intend to focus attention on several mental images which are frequently associated with the city. In particular I shall be showing how some of these images have been shaped by the influence of the Bible. This in itself should not surprise us, for this ancient collection of writings has been dominant in our cultural tradition for so long that it has supplied us with nearly all of our goals and value systems.

The scientific study of the city is a modern phenomenon. But long before this the Bible has been helping to shape the way we think about the city. Quite unconsciously, no doubt, and for better or for worse, we have inherited various images of the city.

The Bible speaks very frequently about the city. Even more interesting is the fact that the Bible is ambivalent. It provides quite contrasting images. The reason for all of this is that the Bible was being written within the long period in which the process of urbanization has been taking place.

The oldest part of the Bible is between three to four thousand years of age. But the first cities began to appear five to six thousand years ago — in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Cities had been in existence for some 2000 years before the Judaeo-Christian path of faith began and, in part, as I shall show, this faith originated as a kind of response to the evolution of the city.

We should note in passing that though five to six thousand years seems a very long time, it is relatively short compared with the length of time our human ancestors have been on this planet, which is at least 100,000 years and probably more. The advent of the city, then, has been relatively recent. It had the effect of introducing a new dimension to human existence. To understand this we must ask what it is which constitutes the essence of a city.

In part, of course, it is numbers. Yet the first cities were quite small in population compared with some of our great metropolitan centres today. The first cities in ancient Sumeria had a population of between seven and twenty thousand. But the city is not just a matter of numbers. We have to ask what factors occurred which allowed such numbers of people to live together in close proximity. Then we must ask — What resulted from this concentration of humanity? How could it give a new dimension to existence?

The simple answer to the first question is that the fertile river valleys of the Tigris, the Nile and the Indus yielded food in such abundance, through agriculture and stock-breeding, that no longer was it necessary for all persons to spend most of their available time in gathering sufficient food to keep themselves alive. The growing food supply freed a section of the population for other pursuits. While the majority remained food producers, forming a kind of peasant class, there developed, in addition, an aristocratic ruling class and a professional class of craftsmen.

Of course there had been some form of art and craft in the pre-urban era but these had to be pursued on what we would today call a voluntary or part-time basis. Because they could now be developed as full-time professions, the skill of the craftsmen also increased at a much more rapid rate. Another important factor in this was that the city enabled a community of craftsmen to work together and to learn from each other’s improvements. The solitary craftsman was replaced by the community craftsmen. Indeed, one of the chief reasons why urban life was bringing a new dimension to human existence was this — the greatly increased opportunities for personal contact, dialogue and stimulation brought a new heightened awareness and sophistication.

There was now provided, at least for a few, both the freedom, and stimulation to think, which were necessary for the first attempts to philosophize. This in turn led to the invention of writing. Writing provided a new means of communication. In oral speech one communicates only with those who are within hearing distance, and, even then, there is no permanent record of what has been said. By means of writing one can communicate with people much further away both in space and in time.

Here was a new way in which cultural traditions could be inherited from the past and handed down for the future. It gave rise to the phenomenon of Holy Scripture. All these things make up what we call culture. The seeds of culture had long been there in pre-urban mankind. It was the advent of the city which nurtured those seeds to mature growth and flowering. What we call civilization is the direct product of the advent of the city as the very word "civilization" reminds us, being derived from the Latin word for "citizen", a city-dweller.

But the advent of the city led quite naturally to a sharp division being made between city-dwellers and country dwellers. The city-dwellers saw themselves as the sophisticated people, the civilized? The rude simple folk of the hills and mountains were the barbarians, the uncivilized. When Christianity spread through Europe it was the country dwellers who were last to be influenced by it: that is why they were called "heathen", i.e. people of the heath. As late as the early part of this century (1900) people of tribal cultures were still being referred to as savages.

Moreover, even in countries of western culture like New Zealand the division of people into urban and rural classes still lingers on. Country folk are sometimes referred to by their sophisticated city cousins as hayseeds and country bumpkins. We find the differences caricatured in comic sketches like those of the "Two Ronnies". Dressed in the smocks of country peasants they make us laugh with their childish simplicity and lack of logic.

It is quite true that from the very first city until now, urban life has led to a particular kind of sophistication, by the variety of personal contacts it makes possible, by the mental stimulation it provides, by the variety of professional pursuits it offers, by the cultural and entertainment opportunities it makes available. Only in the cities are to be found the libraries, the theatres, the opera houses, the art galleries, the universities and other places of higher learning. There is a great deal which we owe to the emergence of urban life.

But there is another side to the city, a side which the country dweller is often more acutely aware of than the city dweller. First, there is noise and cramped living conditions. There is the complexity of traffic. How many country people say they would not dream of driving their car in the city? The city can be very impersonal in comparison with the country. It is full of strangers. One can become very lonely.

The loneliest place in the world, it is sometimes said, is in the middle of a large city where one knows not a soul. Shopkeepers often appear to want your money rather than your custom, for they may never see you again.

Cities quickly become drab and dirty. Some areas deteriorate into slums. What is more, the city becomes the place in which the anti-social tendencies, always present in the human heart, begin to breed and multiply in the same way as that in which diseases strike our plants under hot-house conditions. The city becomes the place for the spread of burglary, drug trafficking, gang warfare. The city produces a criminal underground.

For all these reasons, country people often feel thankful they are not city-dwellers but belong to the country. There they enjoy the freshness of nature — clear air, clean water, quietness, honest toil, mutual trust and a network of sincere personal relationships. To the rural mind the image of the city which is often uppermost is that it is a breeding ground of wickedness.

The wicked city is the very first image of the city which occurs in the Bible. The reason is simple. When the city had been in existence for two to three thousand years, it was already beginning to manifest some of its worst by-products. The semi-nomadic wanderers who lived no settled existence visited the cities for trading purposes but were often not at all impressed by what they saw. It was to such pastoral nomads that the ancient Israelites belonged. Indeed, the very word Hebrew is said to be not an ethnic term but one which simply describes a migratory class of peoples. Their modern survival is to be found in the Bedouin, who still value their freedom above all else, and who contemplate with horror the sedentary, tightly packed life of the city. They and their ancient counterparts saw the city as a wicked place.

It is this image of the city which is reflected in that very quaint but fascinating myth which the Israelites told about the Origin of mankind. Our mythical parents, Adam and Eve, had two sons whom they called Cain and Abel. Cain became a tiller of the ground, an agriculturist. For this purpose he had to settle in one place. Abel became a keeper of sheep, a pastoralist. He was free to move with his flocks and herds. The ancient Israelite mind saw human beings divided from the beginning into these two types, the permanently settled and the free. Curiously enough something of that class distinction between the pastoralist and agriculturist occurs even to this day. I know parts of New Zealand where the high-country run holder treats the agriculturist (whom he calls the dirt-farmer) with a slightly superior air. It is reflected in the well known musical, Oklahoma, in the song which urges the cowman and the farmer to be friends.

Animosity between the two is evidently very old indeed. In the biblical myth Cain killed Abel, At this point in the story we are told that Cain went off with his wife into exile. Many people get side-tracked here and say, "Hang on. If Adam and Eve and their surviving son Cain were the only human beings on earth, where did he get his wife from?" That is the kind of problem which would only occur to the prosaic logical mind of the sophisticated city-dweller. The ancient poetic mind of the pastoral story-teller was just not interested in that kind of logic. What we should take notice of is not what he omitted to explain but what he did say. "Cain went off with his wife, fathered a son and built a city".

Here there are three quite fascinating insights into the nature of the city. First, the ancient nomad saw the settled life of the agriculturist as the transition from the pure and free life of the nomad to the beginning of city life. Secondly, he saw the city as something man-made unlike the natural world. Thirdly, the founder of the very first city was Cain the murderer. That being the case, could one expect the city to be anything else but a cesspool of iniquity?

The image of the wicked city is further reflected in the myth of the Tower of Babel, where the very building of a city, with its accompanying tower, was seen by the nomad as a human monstrosity which reflected the wicked pride in the human heart and which was an affront to God, who made the earth in its natural state. In similar vein, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah became so wicked that according to ancient folk-lore God destroyed them by raining down fire and brimstone from heaven.

In later Israelite tradition it was the Assyrian city of Nineveh which became the symbolic embodiment of all the evil a really great city was thought to engender. When it fell, the prophet Nahum cried out victoriously;

Woe to the bloody city

all full of lies and plunder.

In those days the great powerful empires were often known by the name of the city which was the seat of the Emperor. Assyria, ruled from Asshur, was succeeded by the Empire ruled from Babylon. From that time onwards Babylon became the chief symbol for the wicked city, partly because Jewish exiles were held in captivity there. These symbolic associations long survived the destruction of the city itself and were later used by both Jew and Christian whenever they wished to refer to the wickedness they both deplored and feared in the later city of Rome. It is really Rome which is being referred to in the New Testament Apocalypse where the writer in the following words looks expectantly for its imminent destruction;

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great

It has become a dwelling-place of demons,

a haunt of every foul spirit. . .

for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion,

and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her.

She shall be burned with fire.


The writer of the Apocalypse hears the voice of God calling:

Come out of her, oh my people,

lest you take part in her sins,

lest you share in her plagues.


In view of the frequency of the image of the wicked city in the biblical tradition, it is not surprising to find it accompanied by a divine call to move out of the city, to start somewhere else a new, purer, freer life. Because the city was associated with wickedness, immorality, filth, murder, crime, sexual aberrations, slavery, it was beyond redemption. The city had to be destroyed. The only hope for mankind was to make a clean break with urban existence.

Something of that is embryonically there in the opening of the saga about Abraham, "Go away from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you". And later tradition did embroider this story of Abraham by saying that he was called to abandon the ancient city of Ur because of its idolatry and other forms of wickedness.

The story of Abraham has come down to us almost wholly in legend. But there is another and more important biblical tradition which is much more firmly based on historical events. It is the Exodus from Egypt of a group of Hebrew slaves under the leadership of Moses. The city of Pharaoh had become for them a prison, where they had lost all freedom, and where they lived as forced labour under a foreign ruler. Moses came with the promise of a new land of freedom even though it meant years in which they suffered the rigours and hunger of an unwelcoming wilderness.

The rejection of the city for one reason or another and the return to the simplicity of rural and even desert environment has been no isolated occurrence in past human experience in general and in religious traditions in particular. Several of the great religious traditions originated in just such a move. As the Judaeo-Christian tradition is founded on the Mosaic Exodus from the city of Pharaoh, so Buddhism is founded on the experience of Gautama, who abandoned the princely comforts in which he was born to take up the life of a wandering mendicant, seeking the answers to the questions of life. Finally he found them, as he thought, not sitting at the feet of the wise men of the city, but sitting in solitude under a bo-tree.

Jesus of Nazareth, so the Gospels tell us, really began his ministry to mankind by going out into the loneliness of the Jordanian desert for a long period. There, like the John who baptised him, he lived on locusts and wild honey. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, was actually born in the city — the rich, commercial centre of Mecca. But it was only after he had made a practice of frequently retiring in solitude to a cave on Mt Hira, that he received the divine revelations which became the heart and soul of the Islamic faith.

The flight from the busy, frustrating and wicked city has continued from time to time. It led the Christian St. Antony in the third century to leave completely the wickedness of Egyptian city life and retire in solitude to the desert. His move became the beginning of the monastic orders which became such a feature of mediaeval Christendom. Behind monastery walls monks and nuns found a haven of peace.

Most of us can identify with this rejection of the city even though with us it takes a different form. It is city people, not country people, who complain of the pressures and stress of modern life and who want to get out of the ‘rat race’. It prompts people, if they possibly can, to acquire a bach, a weekend cottage, where by the seaside, the lake, the countryside, they can catch their breath, regain their equilibrium, amid the quietness of natural surroundings.

For most, it is but a temporary respite, but a few go further. They turn their back permanently on the city, sell their homes and find a quiet uninhabited spot, where on their own, or as members of a small commune, they live a simple existence close to the soil and the forces of nature. Some would say they are going back to God. Others would say they are going back to nature. They are certainly turning their backs on the man-made city.

But for most people that is not possible and never will be. The human species is becoming more and more urbanized whether we like it or not. Even the decreasing minority who still live in rural areas are becoming more and more dependent on what goes on in the city. In some respects we can say that just as city dwellers receive their bread from the country, so the cultural fruits of the city are being increasingly distributed in the country. This interdependence between city and country began from the very origins of city life.

However frustrating, uninviting and wicked we may come to view it, wholesale abandonment of the city is not a practical solution. What, then, can be done? Are we humans doomed to become imprisoned within the urban social structures which we have built? What kind of positive hope is there for us city-dwellers? Is the future to be all downhill? There are certainly some who think so. Go to Hong Kong, New York, Philadelphia and Sydney, to name but a few, and you will find much evidence to-support such a gloomy picture.

But there are other images of the city beside that of the wicked city. To these we shall be turning in the next three chapters. In the course of them we shall see that a strange and unexpected thing happened in the biblical tradition itself. Certainly the very first image of the city it presented is that of the wicked city. Even in the last book of the Bible this image is found. But other images began to occur. These eventually became more dominant. The biblical tradition in the course of time gave rise to the conviction that wickedness is not the last word on the character of the city. Instead of becoming an ever more virulent breeding-ground of evil, violence and inhumanity, the city can be redeemed, eventually to provide the highest form of human existence.