Why does the Bible start in a garden and end in a city?
While tidying up some books today, I realised I hadn’t read the final chapter of Jacques Ellul’s What I Believe. In this chapter, “Recapitulation”, Ellul considers this question, and points out that:
This is odd, for in all the myths that talk about a happy beginning for humanity, a golden age, a primal paradise, the end is always a return to the beginning. Humanity finds again the happy place that it lost.
However, the Bible does not present us with a cyclical scheme of this nature, but a linear one in which “[a]t the end of the course we do not come back to the beginning”. God’s “original idea of what is best for us” was a garden, and he could have “kept immutably to his judgment and put us back in a garden”. However:
[A]t the end of time God will place us not in a garden but in a city. God has changed his plan. Why? Because in this new creation of his he takes human history and human works into account.
And, as Ellul continues, “[o]ne might say with some truth that the city is the chief human work”, the place at which “the true history of human development began”, the “focus of all invention and interchange and art”, “the birthplace of culture”:
The city is indeed our primary human creation. It is a uniquely human world. It is the symbol that we have chosen, the place that we have invented and that we prefer.
More than that, however. The city is not just the place we have created: it is “the place that human beings have chosen in opposition to God”, whether in the idolatry of Babylon, the violence of Nineveh or the corruption of Sodom. As a result, the city “always has a negative connotation in the Bible”. But it is still the place which God chooses as his ultimate dwelling place with his people:
And now we find it beautifully revealed that as the new, ideal and perfect place that God will give us at the end of the age, God chooses the city, the place of the revolt against him. In the new creation he changes the negative sign into a positive one.
Since the human race wants the city, God wants it too. He listens to the prolonged request of humanity. He responds to human expectations. … What does this change mean if not that God takes into account what humanity wants?
This in turn gives us hope that not everything that we have done and created in this life will be lost in the judgment; that the judgment will not sweep away entirely “the work that we have done in life, of love, labour, church, character and relations”. Some “fragment” of this will be conserved and used by God to build his city. This is the true “reward” of which the Bible speaks:
[T]o see that something we have done in life (perhaps only a single word) is conserved by God for use in his holy city. We have brought something new to God that he judges worthy of consideration.
The new Jerusalem may be exclusively God’s work, but:
…he builds it with the materials that we bring, materials of all kinds which, when approved by God, reveal a certain human greatness which is our glory.