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Beginnings in Genesis – Building a City of Refuge

March 23, 2008

Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.
Gen 4:17

dscf2723.jpgCain in his alienated and disordered self wanders from God, yet still needs to settle, to find roots and to leave some form of legacy. His immediate response therefore to the condition in which he finds himself is twofold. He lays with his wife and she conceives a child. And he builds a city. She conceives and he builds. In these two ways he seeks to reach back to the place where death is unknown, before he became a wanderer; before he murdered his brother; before his parents were excluded from Eden.

By establishing his line, he secures his memory in the world. By building a city with its walls, he hopes to protect himself form those who seek his life.

He tries to reach back before the curse of wandering by establishing a reason and a place to settle. This is a new beginning for Cain signified in the naming of his first city after his first son, Enoch, which means beginning. He establishes his city as the direct counterpart to the very first beginning; Cain’s enoch is his answer to God’s reshith (gen 1:1). Perhaps in defiance, perhaps in plaintive longing, he establishes the city of Enoch in his effort to escape the curse of the restless wanderer.

The first city built therefore, is a city of refuge and the theological origins of the city are established. A place where human beings can escape from a sense of alienation and restlessness. A place where they can establish roots and a future. A place where a person can make a name and leave a legacy.

The city is the place where the plight of human beings outside of God begins to crystallise. It is in the city that we see the poignant reaching forward and back. Reaching forward to an imagined time and place where a person will feel secure and rooted and at home and back to a time that could possibly undo the failures of the past. In that sense, the city provides a person with the possibility of starting again without the burden of family or home town.

It is of course significant that Cain takes it upon himself to name the city (Gen 4:17). Until this point, the responsibility of naming has been God’s, unless he delegated the task. Indeed it is in the delegation of this unique task to the man, that Adam is given a name himself (Gen 3:19-20). Adam takes on this responsibility by naming the animals, and later, after the Fall, he names his wife. In the act of naming the man finds himself acting in the place of God. (Curiously Cain’s wife never receives a name, but his son does, and so does his city.)

Cain here establishes his new creation and dispenses names in the place of God. Where God creates a garden, Cain builds a city, a place that is not dependent on the gracious acts of God for its growth and development, but the wit and ingenuity of a man.

This city, the first ever city, is a city of refuge, and it is established in defiance and fear, unlike those cities of refuge given in Deuteronomy 19, which were gifted.

It is clear that cities gifted and received are better than cities built.

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9 Comments
  1. Glenn,
    I really appreciate your theological insight as you dig into the text of Genesis. Your grappling with the text shows both the good and bad of cities. Yes. We do find a place within cities where we can call a place “home.” But in urban cities, where it seems you work in Ireland, we can also see the pain and suffering that comes along with cities.

    Here in America it is so disheartening to see the gap between the spread out suburbs—with their green grass and large parks—and the urban poor. I have a strange connection to Ireland. When I worked in Camden, New Jersey last summer—one of the poorest urban cities in our nation—the director of my camp was also from Ireland. Funny how small the world is.

  2. Thanks for the kind words coldfire, I would be delighted to hear more from you as these occasional genesis pieces roll out. As you say, we share a common interest in cities and particularly in the urban poor, and I’m always interested in meeting fellow pilgrims.

    I’d be interested in knowing who your director was. A young woman from my home church has worked with UrbanPromise in 2 of the last 3 years. And another young woman, from Philly, who volunteered with us here in Belfast in 2006, has also worked with UP. So there are some connections.

  3. As has been said ad naueseam, the Bible may begin in the idyllic setting of a Garden, but it culminates in a redeemed city… More and more I think that we need to seriously look at a contextual centre for Urban theology to help us see what a city of refuge means for us.

  4. Yeah David…now how might we go about that???

    I’m up for it, as you know.

  5. Ros Wilson?

  6. Sorry. I got really excited and didn’t finish what I was going to say. I worked at Urban Promise last summer. I never thought living in a three bedroom house with 15 people would be so much fun.

  7. Danny, my friend was heather wilson…I know a Ross Wilson, but he’s an artist, a sculptor, not likely to be him. Heather says the same thing about the group living

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Beginnings in Genesis - Nimrod, Another City-builder « crookedshore
  2. Beginnings in Genesis - Avoiding a Scattering « crookedshore

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