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.