Why We Must All Leave the City

Engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (March 26, 1794 - May 24, 1872)When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to a very interesting French sociologist-theologian, named Jacques Ellul. Not literally; he was dead, but I discovered his writings and I must say, he had some of the most interesting insights I have ever come across.

Perhaps the most interesting, and one that forms the theoretical backdrop for my novel on the Song of Solomon, is his analysis of the Biblical story of Cain. We all remember that Cain, in a fit of jealously killed his brother Abel. God was not too pleased about this and after a speedy trial, God condemns Cain to a life as a nomad: “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12).

Cain object to this punishment vigorously:

“My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:13)

God is not altogether unsympathetic and promises to protect Cain, to put His sign upon him. But this seems to be inadequate in Cain’s mind: he rejects God’s offer, ignores his sentence to be a wanderer, and instead builds a city.

Ellul points out that the city, in this moment comes to symbolize humanity’s rejection of God. We reject his offer of protection and instead build our own walls to protect ourselves. We devise systems to provide food and clothing and whatever else we may need. We no longer need God; we have built a City.

And so, instead of a life built upon faith in the provision and protection God, we have, through the millennia, built enormous and intricate–and in many ways beautiful–systems and processes, engineered to provide for our every need: physical, social, psychological, spiritual. We have adopted her values and belief that, in reality, we do not need God. We can take care of ourselves.

This may be especially true when it comes to marriage and relationships: the City has devised techniques for procuring, attracting, stimulating, analyzing and even discarding a mate. For many, marriage is just a microcosm of the City: we protect ourselves, make sure we have what we need, rather than abandoning ourselves to the stark, exposed life of the Wilderness and the promise of God’s care and protection.

I am challenged by this. Even though I am not married, I realize that I can tend to position my relationships (and my life) in such a way that I get what I need, while mitigating risk. It is a scary thing to wander in the Wilderness, to expose ourselves to injury and harm with only the promise of God as assurance. But I think it is far more dangerous to remain in the City and risk a life without God at all.

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