One of my current writing projects deals with the abundance of anti-city-building polemic in Genesis 1-11. My work the past several months has convinced me of a few things. First, all the anti-city-building attitude comes from the J source. When the composer of Genesis 1-11 combined the sources he was not able to neutralize the polemic, but I cannot say for certain whether neutralizing it was one of the composer’s goals. Second, the other major source, P, is not anti-city, and it is difficult to imagine such sentiments in the kind of person who composed Genesis 1-11, after Judah had become urban and YHWH had become so identified with Jerusalem. Third, the major accomplishments of the composition process were putting distance between the Israelite ancestors and city-building and putting the focus on Babylon (Babel), rather than city-building in general. Genesis 1-11 connects city-building to the families of Cain and Ham and shifts the emphasis to human pride and the resistance to “filling the earth.” City-building motivated by a desire for fame (“Let us make a name for ourselves,” 11:4) receives a final judgment at Babel.
One question the above conclusions raise is why a major source in Israelite tradition was so opposed to cities. Given Israel’s experience with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon the anti-empire stance in Genesis makes sense, but what experiences might lie behind a more general opposition to city life? It is also fair to ask what would have constituted a city in the minds of those responsible for the tradition. Archaeological evidence provides a general picture of Canaan in the second millennium that might explain an anti-city attitude. At the beginning of the second millennium the area was dominated politically and economically by walled cities. Historians usually refer to “city-states” because they appear to have been independent from one another, each city having its own “king.” By the end of the second millennium, the size and influence of these cities had declined significantly. Joshua contains a reflection of the process, even listing thirty-one city-states in Joshua 12, but it condenses the collapse into a much shorter and more exciting story of an invading Israelite army. Archaeological evidence demonstrates a long period of decreased rainfall in the second millennium, so settled life in cities, requiring intense agricultural production, would have been difficult to sustain in come cases. Some of the people who eventually made up Israel were those who had lived between the cities, perhaps oppressed by them, or refugees from the declining cities. Eventually the Moses and exodus narrative became the dominant “national origin” story, but anti-city elements remained in their sacred texts, even if reshaped.
Ancient Israel’s great heroes all have an anti-city element to their stories. Regardless of where they were born or died, Abraham, Jacob, the twelve sons of Jacob, Moses, and David all had a shepherd past. Many biblical stories, from Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12) to Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 1), begin with people moving because of famine. Even the story that moves the descendants of Israel to Egypt in Genesis 42-43 is a famine and departure narrative. By the time the literature of ancient Israel was in the form we know today, in the Bible, urban life had become an unavoidable reality. The anti-city pieces had been shaped to serve different purposes in a larger narrative, forming a national identity for Israel in relation to the nations around it.