It was on a clear but cold winter afternoon that I landed at JFK Airport on my first visit to the United States. After clearing customs and immigration and being granted a three week tourist visa, I climbed into a taxi on my way to my Manhattan hotel. Half an hour later, as the sun was starting to set, the cab swept around a curve in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and for the first time in my life my eyes fell upon a sight of which I have never tired. The towering skyscrapers of lower Manhattan silhouetted against the still blue sky took my breath away. I found myself silently mouthing these words, “How great are your works, Oh Lord!” (Psalms 92:5) as tears started up in my eyes. It was then, only a couple of hours after first setting foot upon the continent of North America while driving up the East River towards the Brooklyn Bridge that I resolved to stay. And, though no longer on a tourist visa, I’m still here.
Why did this sight move me so deeply? Because the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and the giant redwood trees overlooking San Francisco Bay might all have conceivably come into being as the result of a lengthy process of random, unaided materialistic evolution. Primeval winds and wild rivers might have shaped canyons and mountains while undisturbed saplings grew and grew. But a colossal hub of millions of human beings all cooperating to build and maintain Manhattan with its buildings and bridges, its streets and subways and its unimaginably vast system of human enterprise could only have been built by creatures touched by the finger of God. I was immeasurably moved realizing that I was gazing upon the proof of God’s goodness.
Beavers build lodges and dams that are wonders of hydraulic engineering. Bees build hives of energetic productivity and ants create huge invisible underground nests. But none of these examples of animal instinct matches a city. Every beaver, bee or ant habitation almost exactly matches every other, but each city that humans build looks different and each houses its own unique culture. Every animal endeavor is predictable while cites collapse when their cultures fail as Jane Jacobs explains in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. While some cities become shining jewels gleaming with every facet of human creativity, others lose their central life force; they deteriorate and die, becoming garbage heaps and cesspools.
Just as a culture builds a city, so a city grows and protects its culture. And when the city dies, so does its culture. For this reason, Germany concentrated its bombing blitz during eight months in 1940-1941 upon London and not upon the green fields of Devon which provided such agricultural abundance. Likewise, the Royal Air Force bombed Berlin and Dresden and not German farmland. To end the Pacific war, we bombed the great cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, utterly ignoring the rice paddies that fed 70 million Japanese.
To fully grasp how cities are really an amazing manifestation of our Godly origin, we can glance at these Bible sections.
In anticipation of inheriting the Land of Israel, the tribes of Reuben and Gad request the east bank of the Jordan. After much nuanced-filled negotiation, Moses instructs them:
Build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flocks…
Then Moses instructed Israel to give the tribe of Levi 48 cities! (Numbers chapter 35)
Did the small children of two tribes really need a few cities? Wouldn’t a handful of childcare facilities suffice? And did one tribe of Levites really need nearly 50 cities?
And, while we’re talking of unnecessary cities, why did Cain build a city for all of about half a dozen human beings on the planet? (Genesis 4:17)
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that whenever Scripture mentions a city it is teaching us that a new culture is being introduced. This idea is not without modern precedent. When the Australians began to see themselves as an independent nation early in the 20th century, they set about building their new capital city of Canberra where no city existed and where almost no people dwelled. Fifty years later, Brazil did the same thing, building the capital city Brasilia, not in response to any growing local population but to attract a population. Of course today both Canberra and Brasilia are large and thriving cities.
Thus when the Children of Israel were anticipating their arrival into their own land for the first time ever, building cities was an essential first step. Reuben and Gad built cities, not for their existing small children but to provide a future-looking culture for those children. The Levites didn’t possess the numbers to warrant 48 cities, but they were the guardians of a culture that placed worship of God at the center. Naturally they needed cities to help implant that outlook.
Conversely when enemies attack, they have always known that if they destroy the cultural heart of the country by eradicating the city, the rural farmlands will also cease to exist.
This Sunday, we observe the most mournful day of the Jewish calendar, known as Tisha B’Av. This is the date around which almost every calamity inflicted upon the Jewish people throughout history is clustered. We tend to heave a heartfelt sigh of relief when the day passes each year. One of the calamities mourned is the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple some twenty-five hundred years ago. On Sunday we shall read the book of Lamentations whose opening verse reads:
Oh how has the city [Jerusalem] that was once so populous become so lonely!
She has become like a widow…
We see that just as the happy new culture that would arise with the Jewish arrival in Israel needed cities built, so the tragic new culture heralded by the eviction of the Jews from Israel needed cities destroyed—starting with the capital city, Jerusalem.
The condition of American cities sheds considerable light on the health of the cultures of the states in which those cities are situated. It is not hard to see that Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix and Charlotte are in better shape than Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco and New York. The rural countryside can pretty much survive without a God-centric culture. However, once cities go secular, there’s not much that can save them other than the fervent revival of the Biblical beliefs and values that built those cities in the first place.
I do enjoy the natural beauty to be found in the United States of America. But I am spiritually inspired and emotionally moved far more by the good people to be found maintaining and growing those still-healthy cities that I am privileged to visit and in which I am often blessed to appear and speak. I pray for that Biblical revival among America’s believers and the first sign of its success will be the return of our cities.
Adapted and reprinted from Tisha B’Av teaching summer 2016