Raymond Williams, in his great The Country and the City, shows how ancient this contrast is, and how standardized its terms are. The contrast is almost always between (a) the innocence and simplicity of the countryside and (b) the noisy corruption of the city. Juvenal begins his third Satire thus: Quid Romae faciam? mentiri nescio — What will I do in Rome? I don’t know how to lie. 

In Genesis, it is Cain, the first murderer, who builds the first city (Chapter 4). Surely the building of the Super-Tall Tower is a classic urbanist project (Chapter 11). In the patriarchal narrative, to visit a city is to expose yourself to sexual temptation (Chapter 39) or assault (Chapter 19). The definitive urban societies of the Hebrew Bible are Egypt and Babylon, morally chaotic places that allure, ensnare, and enslave. (See my earlier Encyclopedia Babylonica, in which I also point out how Rome becomes the New Babylon.) 

But I think the City in the Pentateuch is most fundamentally an image not of corruption but of human self-reliance.

In Chapter 15 of The Country and the City, Raymond Williams says of Dickens’s London that “its miscellaneity, its crowded variety, its randomness movement, were the most apparent things about it, especially whe seen from inside.” But “this miscellaneity and randomness in the end embodied a system: a negative system of indifference; a positive system of differentiation, in law, power and financial control.” The “miscellaneity” is the means by which people are removed from their familial context and made vulnerable to the depredations of the System. The rulers of a city, aided and abetted by most of the residents, build a controlling system that seeks to eliminate uncertainty, to bring everything under human control. 

(It’s not really appropriate here, but at some point I’d like to write about Dickens’s Dombey and Son, which concerns the desperate struggle of those Londoners who have no means of escape from the city to avoid being dehumanized by its incitements to pride, its scorn of all human dependency on one another. The City wants us to depend, not on human kindness and compassion, but on its own financial and social System — and to call that enslavement “freedom.” Williams’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Dombey and Son, borrowed in part from The Country and the City, is one of the best critical essays I have ever read, and it touches on just these themes, and others of great import.) 

By contrast, the pastoral life — the life of those who herd animals and live in tents — is continually aware of its own fragility. The standard-issue pastoralist can but placate the gods and seek their aid, which may or may not come. The children of Israel place their trust wholly in the LORD. They live by faith; that is to say, they entrust their lives and goods to the promises of the LORD. 

I’m looking well ahead, but … is it not significant that when the Israelites finally have a home, when the LORD brings them out of their Egyptian enslavement and their subsequent years of wandering are finally over, they want to build a city and be ruled over by a King? That is: finally to be able to trust in themselves and their own powers of self-protection and self-governance?

It’s impossible to deny the central place of Jerusalem in the Biblical story: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” But is not the connection between the city and human “cunning” somewhat problematic? (The right hand is cunning, that is to say, dexterous, capable of manipulation and control.) I understand of course the eschatological hope of the New Jerusalem, that ecstatic vision of the concluding chapters of the book of Revelation, but I can’t help reflecting on the odd fact that from the perspective of the Pentateuch, settlement in a city looks like a catastrophic error and a failure of trust in the LORD.