Beginnings in Genesis – Building a City of Refuge
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.
Cain 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.