Build the City: Thoughts from Genesis


For almost two weeks we’ve been reading the creation story from the first part of the Book of Genesis at Mass. Six days after creating the world, God creates man and woman and gives them dominion over the created world. Creation and humanity are inseparable, the first 11 chapters of Genesis make clear, which is why Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si recommends we look at Genesis to understand our relationship with the created world.

Adam and Eve begin life in a garden, for one thing. No partner for Adam appears in the birds and the animals God brings to him, Genesis says, but even as Eve becomes “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” she’ s not enough for him. Both need a world beyond themselves. They both need the created world to flourish.

That’s certainly what the Book of Genesis says. For humanity to flourish, it needs to have a good relationship with creation. Human relationships are not enough, we need a relationship with creation, not a dominating relationship, or a selfish relationship, but one of love and care.

It’s an inseparable relationship. At the beginning of the story of Noah, which follows the fall, God says “I will wipe out from the earth the man whom I created.” But it’s not just man God threatens to destroy, it’s also “the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them.” Creation rises and falls with us.

After the deluge, God renews his covenant with creation and the descendants of Noah who are scattered over the earth in order to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else occurs: human beings, driven by a desire for unity, come together to build a city. A common origin and language draws them to live together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens; they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. So they’re punished as their tower becomes a Tower of Babel and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the story from Genesis does not claim God is against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place where human flourishing can take place. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story says a city is good but it can be destroyed by sin.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis recently convened a meeting of mayors from cities throughout the world at the Vatican. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, is looking to cities to be agents for unifying peoples. Cities are important places for humans to flourish.

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates the tower in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. Does the painter see a warning? So many cities suffer from ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city, but still? Its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.






3 thoughts on “Build the City: Thoughts from Genesis

  1. JohnD

    Father Victor, thanks for the reminder that the City is like the human heart, fertile for both good & evil. May we all nurture the good, seek peace (i.e. right relationships), in the created world, in our neighbor and with our God.

  2. Natalie

    Cities like NYC have certainly nurtured the human beings’ basic needs by improving the human condition and thus the human spirit. NYC was and will remain the greatest example of a haven or rather home to the immigrant. The vastness and diversity of its population provides economic opportunity and thus economic improvement to all. My grandfather for example an Italian immigrant with a skill to make and repair shoes was able to set up shop on one of the busiest crossroads of the city, West 42 St. On this urban thoroughfare, his neighboring businesses included a hairdressers shop owned and operated by a womam, daughter of Polish immigrants. The German Jewish, Holocaust survivor, Leon owned and operated the Soda/candy shop where kids were able to buy eggcreams, penny candies and the latest edition of the Daily News for 8 cents. The NY deli owner was the son of holocaust survivors. Mike and his son operated the flourishing business that fed NY’s lumber company workers, longshoremen from the docks, bus drivers from the Port Authority. There was a Greek baker, French patisserie, German brewery, the Spanish snow cone wagons, and not to be forgotten our Irish nuns and priests. We lived in harmony with other species that inhabited the city; pigeons that cooed on the windowsill, stray cats that eerily cried and hissed in the alley at night and the dog that howled along with a passing ambulance siren. We lived, survived, prospered, for the most part, in peace. True every city had its criminal element and its law enforcers. It was a balanced city. We lived in the shadows of large financial institutions and hospitals, courts, tenement apartments and Park avenue townhouses, schools, libraries, museums, theaters. Yet more importantly, NYC had many diverse houses of worship which were filled to the rafters with worshippers. As worshippers have dwindled either through relocation or just lack of faith, we see unfortunately many Catholic Churches closing in NYC. This alters the city skyline, the neighborhood landscape in ways that hurt and challenge not only the faithful but those in need of social services provided by a church such as a Franciscan soup kitchen or a gym for kids to play basketball . There is an ATM, VERIZON store and coffee shop on every corner in NYC. At one time that could be said of the churches! The demolishing and collapsing of multiple parishes into one can not be good for the human condition or human spirit. For it is our churches that help us build a city of love!

  3. vhoagland Post author

    Beautiful comment. You name the strength of the city. And I agree it’s weakened with a decline of places of worship. Thanks. Fr.Victor

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