From the garden to the city

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.

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12 Responses to From the garden to the city

  1. This strikes me as another example of how our Lord sanctifies and makes us of things for the benefit of His Church, even when to all outward appearances it would not be so.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    Yes, I prefer the prospect of a more-than-restoration over the simple “Eden restored” message. The use of the city as an image for the dwelling-place of man with God is a lovely one, because the first city, as Ellul alludes to, was built by Cain. It would be too easy, then, to view the city as summarising all that is wicked about human nature: but actually, it summarises more all that is twisted. The message is one of purification, not destruction; of redemption, rather than removal.

    And I love that prospect of the riches of the kings of the earth being brought into the New Earth to God’s glory: I can’t wait to sing Handel’s Messiah for Handel’s Messiah (and mine) and never miss a note!

  3. joel hunter says:

    Ain’t Ellul great? Am I allowed to use the word ‘redemption’ in connection with this eschatology?

    Do you find it curious that a thinker in the Reformed tradition says things like “Since the human race wants the city, God wants it too”?

  4. Thomas says:

    ‘Do you find it curious that a thinker in the Reformed tradition says things like “Since the human race wants the city, God wants it too”?’

    Not really. I’ll leave it at that – don’t want to cause trouble.

  5. Jim says:

    Hey, I don’t want to pollute your comment space but I don’t have another way to contact you. I tagged you the other day with a meme I started to name three things you like about your church, because so many in blogspace, myself included, nag on the church most of the time, whereas you seem happy with yours. See http://lordibelievehelpmyunbelief.blogspot.com/2008/02/what-i-like-about-you.html for details.

    I would appreciate it if you participated – I like your insights (and the comment I made when I tagged you was a joke! 🙂

    Feel free to delete this comment.

    Jim

  6. John H says:

    Jim: I’ll see what I can do. Manic week at work and a weekend away mean I can’t promise anything. All spare time devoted to reading obscure French socio-philosopho-theologians. 🙂

  7. Tom R says:

    Dunno if Ellul can be called “Reformed” in the Anglospheric sense, which equates “Reformed” = “Calvinist”. Ellul belonged to the Reformed Church of France, but he was not a Calvinist. But nor was he a Lutheran, Arminian or pseudo-Romanist. He believed in universal atonement. No, not just rejecting TULIP, but actually believed everyone – Satan included – would be redeemed in the end.

  8. John H says:

    A quote on the back cover of my copy of “The Technological Society” refers to Ellul as “a Catholic layman active in the ecumenical movement”.

    Er, right. So actively ecumenical, in fact, that he was a member of the Reformed Church…

    Ellul’s universalism is very interesting. In “What I Believe” (PDF here), he stops short of the “dogmatic universalism” of many universalists (e.g. Robert Short), and emphasises that his belief is just that – his own personal belief, though one which he considers the NT keeps open as a possibility:

    Although I proclaim the truth of universal salvation, I cannot proclaim it as an absolute truth. I cannot penetrate the secret of God. I cannot presume upon a simple decision of the eternal Father. Hence I cannot proclaim this truth as a dogmatic proposition which is scientifically demonstrated. In proclaiming it, I am saying what I believe, what meditation on the biblical texts leads me to believe. I do not teach universal salvation; I announce it. (What I Believe, p.207)

    IIRC, this is very similar to Barth’s position.

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    Do remember that the Tree of Life is to be found in the city, too. So there is some continuity with Eden.

    Apart from the fall, would Eden have remained just a garden? What would a garden inhabited by more humans have looked like? I think the point about actual human history is important (and, to me, comforting), but I don’t know that all of this comes from the fallen part of our history. True, we don’t go back to where we came from. My question is, how far is our final destination from where we would have otherwise gone?

  10. John H says:

    Rick: fair point about the Tree of Life.

    As regards what would have happened if humanity had not rebelled, then that is necessarily speculative. I think Ellul still has a point when he emphasises the negative connotations that the city carries in much of the Bible, and in particular the fact that, in the Genesis account, it is Cain who founds the first city (rather than, say, Seth).

    In much the same way, the kingship is something which initially is seen as negative – founded on a desire to be like all the other nations – but which then becomes central to God’s purposes for his people. If the Israelites hadn’t demanded a king, what would the ministry of Jesus have looked like?

    “How far is our final destination from where we would have otherwise gone?” There’s no way we can answer that question, of course. What’s interesting is that the way we have gone does end up leading to that final destination, rather than God simply reversing our course.

  11. Rick Ritchie says:

    I’m speculating, but in part to point out that there is some speculation in the presentation already offered. To say that we end up in a city on account of our choices is to suggest that you know in advance that we would not otherwise have ended up there. I don’t think we can know this.

    Even the Garden of Eden might suggest something here. Would the earliest readers have ever known of a garden not attached to a city?

    This is one book of Ellul’s I don’t have. And I don’t mean to bag on him. I generally love everything he has to say. Though I think with his view of verbal discourse, he is not presenting indisputable facts, but a point of view.

    Does he go into the meaning of Jerusalem? I think the fact that it is taken from the Jebusites might give Jerusalem a meaning beyond “city.” It is captured territory.

    When you also consider that the New Jerusalem is the Bride of the Lamb, you have to wonder why the term “city” is used. Is it because of the physical characteristics? I doubt it. The church is the Bride of Christ. So perhaps “city” is used because a city is comprised of a lot of people. When the gates are the apostles, I think it has to do with the fact that we enter the church through their teachings. All of this is an elaboration of teachings we find elsewhere (e.g. Ephesians 2:20, 1 Peter 2:5).

    Other points of analogy may hold as well. But I see us ending up in something analogous to a city, rather than in a city. That our history could be illustrated from does not mean we could not have attained the same end without it. What it means is our history allows the opportunity to draw analogies that would otherwise be impossible.

  12. Laura says:

    These quotes are rather gorgeous. Nicking them, if you don’t mind.

    *mental wheels turning*

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