The first civilization was that of Cain and his descendants. They built a city (Genesis 4:17), and together with it they developed an economy (Genesis 4:20), cultivated the arts (Genesis 4:21), and invented technology (Genesis 4:22). These are marks of a civilization. But the most glaring thing about the Cainite civilization is that it was built without acknowledging God, let alone being in fellowship with Him. For they were not only living outside Eden, they did not even “call upon the name of the LORD” (cf. Genesis 4:26), which means they did not worship the Creator God. And to alert us to the fact that this civilization was also not consistent with God’s will, the narrator tells us that Lamech, of the sixth generation from Cain, not only violated God’s will for marriage by practicing polygamy, but also boasted to his wives about murdering a boy just for having wounded him.
Hence unlike Cain, who at least expressed fear for the consequence of murder (Genesis 4:14), Lamech showed no such fear (Genesis 4:24). The narrator therefore presents to us the long-term consequence of a godless civilization: the gradual desensitization of the conscience, and hence the certain disintegration in morality. The story does not end here.
At the end of Genesis 4 the narrator recounts the birth of Seth to replace the godly Abel. We have just referred to Genesis 4:26, which reveals that it was only after the birth of Seth’s first son that people (the Sethites) began to worship God. Hence the Sethite line had a godly beginning. Genesis 5, which traces the descendants of Seth up to Noah, indicates that unlike the Cainite line, the Sethite line was godly. In fact Enoch, of the sixth generation from Seth, was so godly that “God took him” away to be with Him without Enoch having to experience death (Genesis 5:24). And Noah, of the ninth generation, was exceptionally godly.
Then Genesis 6:1-4 records the intermarriage between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” These cross-unions resulted in a hitherto unprecedented situation, where God “saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Only Noah remained righteous. So God decided to destroy the wicked world through a massive flood and spare Noah and his family. In this way the world could be rebuilt through the godly Noah and his family.
Who were the “sons of God” and why did their marrying the “daughters of men” led to such intolerable widespread wickedness? There are basically three views held by Bible scholars: angels, rulers, or Sethites. If we read Genesis 4-9 as a self-contained narrative, the Sethites view, which is the traditional Christian view, fits the context nicely.
As pointed out by Kenneth Matthews (1996: 319, 330), it is significant that the extended account of Noah and the Flood is embedded in the genealogy of Seth that begins in Genesis 5:1 and ends in Genesis 9:29 (cf. Genesis 5:5,8,11, et cetera). This means the flood account is about the descendants of Seth. So the sudden introduction of the otherwise unidentified “sons of God” as the main subject of the story naturally means they are the Sethites. This is how we read a narrative. Luke, who used this very genealogy to trace the ancestry of Jesus all the way to Adam through the line of Seth, referred to Adam as “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Seth and his male descendants would then be “sons of God.”
The structure of Genesis 4-6 also points to the same conclusion. For Genesis 4 records the line of Cain and Genesis 5 the line of Seth. The mixing of the two groups in Genesis 6 naturally implies the mixing of the two lines. Again this is how we read a narrative. And since the Sethite line was godly as opposed to the Cainite line, “sons of God” naturally refers to the male descendants of Seth, while “daugthers of men” to female descendants of Cain.
Genesis 4-6 is then saying that because of sin that indwells fallen humanity, even the godly line will ultimately be corrupted. In fact, the same message obtains even if we accept the angels or rulers view; the only difference is that the message is less direct and forceful. For since the flood account is embedded in the Sethite genealogy, Genesis 6:1-4 still highlights the ultimate corruption of the godly line. This message is still relevant today. It challenges any ideology seeking to build or rebuild an ideal civilization without an effective remedy to the inherent flaw in fallen human nature.
City in Civilization
Even though the first city was built by the godless Cain, who may have built it out of wrong motivations, we do not suspect that building a city is in itself a bad idea. We have in fact assumed that it would be a natural expression of our God-like abilities in fulfilling the Creation Mandate (cf. Bartholomew 2011: 38-43). This is mainly because when the Creation Mandate is ultimately fulfilled, it also involves a city, a perfect “garden city”—the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22). Since the ultimate civilization God has for (redeemed) humanity is that of an urban paradise, David Smith (2011: 23) rightly concludes that “the transition from rural innocence to urban civilization is granted the divine stamp of approval.” In fact, “the trajectory in Scripture from the ‘garden’ of Eden to a city reflects the role of the city as a symbol of God’s intent and humankind’s desire to develop the creation and to build places of culture and community” (Bartholomew 2011: 161).
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for “city” (as used in Genesis 4:17) can be translated “city,” “town,” or even “village.” Certainly biblical cities cannot compare with modern cities in terms of size and population. Hence, what could be regarded as a city in the Old Testament, in terms of size and population, is what we would call a town today (Fry 1979: 438). So we define a “city” simply as a permanent settlement of a relatively large and diverse population supported by the necessary means to sustain such a settlement.
The most basic of such means is of course a viable economy, without which there cannot even be a permanent settlement. The relative density and diversity of the population, and the ensuing complexities, challenge the human mind and inspire human creativity. This leads to new technology and industry as well as improvements in the economy. Since human beings are spiritual beings with spiritual needs, they would also express their creativity in and through the arts. Summarizing the work of urban theorists, theologian Tim Gorringe (2002: 149) puts it nicely: “The creativity of the cities is manifested above all in the arts, in the economy, and in industry.” This means the city is crucial to civilization.
Certainly we need to also include the two basic spheres of culture without which a civilization cannot be built, let alone survive. These are the family and education. And for a civilization to thrive there is a need for the sphere of religion. In today’s context, this claim may be contentious. But it is really not, for true religion is basically the fear of God. According to the New Testament, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God ... is this: to visit orphans and widows, and to keep oneself unstained from the world [lusting after possession, pleasure and power]” (James 1:27; cf. 1 John 2:15-17). In other words, true religion involves living out our God-like qualities of love and justice (cf. James 2:8). Since unloving and unjust behavior is considered “uncivilized,” religion is crucial to civilization. Finally, for a city to function properly, there must be some form of legal and political organization, which means, the sphere of government.
We can now list the seven influential spheres of culture that characterize a civilization: Religion, Family, Education, Economy & Business, Arts & Entertainment, Media & Technology, and Government. We have added business to economy because the modern economy is business driven. Entertainment is included with the arts because the arts are to be enjoyed. And since we are listing the influential spheres of culture, we have not only paired media to technology but also named it first. For the media, which is driven by communication technology, is the most influential means in modern times to help ensure that a civilization is what it is supposed to be.
We have seen the central role the city plays in building a civilization. However it is tempting to view the city as intrinsically evil given that modern cities seem to be consistently characterized by spiritual, moral, social, economic and political evil. But we must not allow our experience and observation of modern cities to color the way we read the Bible. For a “city” (or town, by our standards) in the biblical sense differs from a modern city not only in terms of size and population but also in structure and sophistication. We have defined the city in such a generic way that it is applicable to a premodern as well as a modern city. The negative phenomena that characterize the modern city, such as the lack of community, and the consequent moral, social and psychological problems, need not be associated with a premodern city.
This is not to say that premodern cities were free from negative phenomena. But these were due to human sinfulness, which can be manifested in a rural or an urban context. Evil has been associated with cities because sin entered the world even before the first city was built. It may be argued that the city is more prone towards evil than the village. This is because the very existence of a city usually means that an economy adequately viable for a relatively large and diverse population has been achieved. This leads to division of labor and the production and accumulation of material wealth other than food. And the sense of material security and prosperity that results is enough to cause fallen humanity to become prone to turning away from God and His will. We saw in Deuteronomy 8:5-17 how God warned Israel against forsaking Him as a result of economic security and prosperity. To conclude that the city is by nature evil is to argue that economic prosperity is in itself evil.
The “city” in generic terms is not intrinsically evil. But what human beings make of a city depends on the dominant belief-system, which becomes incarnated in the shape the city takes, in terms of both the physical environment as well as the corporate way-of-life. The corporate way-of-life is expressed mainly through the seven influential spheres of culture. Obviously this incarnation happens most readily and pervasively when the belief-system suits the (sinful) human desire for moral independence from God. This understanding of the city is crucial to analyzing the problems of modern civilization and to recognizing the solutions needed. To these we turn next.