Few things prove as dangerous as “givens,” those things which we just automatically assume are the way things should be and which are good. Yet everything in this creation has a dark side because of the corruption of sin. Civilization is one such “given.” In the modern world we certainly enjoy our “creature comforts,” advances in health, science, and technology which allow for us to live comfortably and thrive. Many among us enjoy urban or suburban life. When humans build on a piece of land they call it “development”; land left as God made it is called “undeveloped.” We might enjoy the outdoors and living “in the wild,” but only recreationally. In history, moments of cultural production are “golden ages of civilization”; periods of difficulty and the breakdown of civilization are seen as “dark ages.”
We might assume that civilization is seen in Scripture as fondly as it is among people today. If so we are in for quite the surprise! The first man to build a city is not Adam, nor Abel, nor Seth, but Cain (Genesis 4:17). Those who developed the tools of technology, instruments of metal and mirth, were Cain’s descendant Lamech’s sons (Genesis 4:21-22). Nimrod, called a “mighty one” on the earth, was associated with the many cities of Mesopotamia, and he built what would become Assyria (Genesis 10:8-12). Throughout the rest of Biblical history those associated with the “great civilizations” of the ancient Near Eastern and Classical worlds, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, would each in turn oppress the people of God.
God, meanwhile, made man and put him in a garden (Genesis 2:3-28). Abel was a shepherd; many of the mighty people of God would either be shepherds or own many animals (Genesis 4:2). God called Abram out of “civilization,” from Ur of the Chaldees, the greatest city of its time, to live in the relative backwater of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-3). Abram chose well to remain in Canaan, while Lot suffered greatly for choosing the plain around Sodom, a city full of wickedness (Genesis 13:9-13). Throughout the Bible value is placed on living off the land; the only city which receives great commendation is Jerusalem, the City of David, the place where YHWH made His name to dwell, and which would represent the location of the people of God (Psalm 135:21, Isaiah 62:1, Zechariah 2:12, Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:2).
What would be so wrong with civilization? Its difficulties are encapsulated in one city: Babel, also known as Babylon. Babel is the place where all mankind gathered to build a tower to make a name for himself and to avoid being scattered on the earth (Genesis 11:4). While man’s intentions at Babel were frustrated by God, he never forgot that tendency; ever since, when humans come together, they tend to work to build monuments to their own greatness. This same Babel would become the city and empire that would lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy it and the Temple within its gates (2 Kings 25:1-21). The prophets roundly denounced Babylon for her arrogance and presumptuousness (Jeremiah 50:1-51:64); not for nothing does John see Rome as Babylon the Great, a harlot, drunk on the blood of the prophets and saints (Revelation 17:1-18:24). Babylon thus represents the human power arrogating itself against God and His purposes, drawing resources from the earth and from other people to its own aggrandizement no matter what the cost. It was true of Babylon; it was true of Rome; it has proven true of every civilization.
We are beginning again to see what happens when people everywhere “speak the same language”: the language of fossil fuels combined with the language of money and greed. All around the world resources are extracted and exploited without ceasing. “Development” overtakes more and more land which had been left in a more “natural” state. Our air and water is polluted with the effects of our industrial production; the world is warming and the effects are beginning to be felt acutely in the oceans, on the poles, and in the severity of our weather.
Many mock and dismiss such talk as hysteria, and yet Isaiah speaks of the land and the trees rejoicing at the downfall of Babylon, for the land was now at rest and could rejuvenate from the destructive tendencies of civilization (Isaiah 14:7-8). It was famously said of the Romans how they would make a wasteland and call it peace (Tacitus, Agricola 30). And so the original “Babel” caused great difficulty to the earth in the extraction of resources; Rome, the “Babylon” of the first century, did the same, and now all of us may well prove guilty of the same thing. It is now believed that in one lifetime over half of the animal life in the world has died. Everywhere we look we now see evidence of “Babel”: God’s creation paved over, built up, and called paradise, and yet it is sterile, without life. We now have to leave our cities to “find” nature and draw strength and life from the creation God made, and in which God infused life!
It is not wrong to live in civilization or to enjoy its benefits; early Christians lived in the Roman Empire and took advantage of its opportunities. But we do well to recognize how civilization is used to continually represent Babel. “Civilized” nations think nothing of storming across the land in the ravages of war. “Civilized” nations continually work against God’s purposes and oppress and persecute those who seek His will. “Civilized” nations continually set themselves against nature as if in a war, the ultimate demonstration of man arrogating against God in attempting to “develop” God’s creation, and not just take care of God’s creation. Thus, civilization is all about man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Civilization produces some benefits, but “development” is not always the best or greatest. We do well to honor what God has made, and seek to glorify God in the midst of “civilized” nations. May we seek to live as humble servants of God, seeking the heavenly Jerusalem!
Ethan R. Longhenry