But Yahweh started a second historical period, the Age of Yahwism, in 1921 BC with his call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-4).
In that year Abraham was 75 years old and living in the Mesopotamian city of Haran on the banks of the Euphrates River. For reasons known only to himself, Yahweh—the one odd god of truth, freedom, love, and vitality—decided to speak with Abraham. He decided to share with Abraham a surprising word of truth that would free him from his solidarity with the city. He decided he would free Abraham to live, in some land yet to be identified, as a witness to his love and fullness of life. The history of this people chosen by Yahweh for his own begins with Abraham's freedom from the city of Haran as monument to the gods.
Even after Abraham arrived in Canaan, he did not become a new resident in a city. He and his descendants after him continued to live in tents.
They did have contact with cities, those homes of alien gods, but these contacts were routinely unpleasant. Abraham’s nephew Lot actually chose to live in the city of Sodom. He escaped solidarity with its destruction only because Yahweh chose to spare him as Abraham’s nephew (Genesis 19:1-29).
When Jacob’s daughter Dinah left her tent to visit the women of the city of Shechem, the prince of that city raped her (Genesis 34).
After Jacob’s beloved son Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt, he ended up imprisoned in a city there (Genesis 39:19-23). Later all the descendants of Jacob would suffer the same fate.
No, rather than building cities like Babylon from bricks and mortar (Genesis 11:1-4), the people of Abraham lived in tents. Occasionally they would use an uncut stone, or pile of them, as a monument to the god who created both stones and them.
After Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending, and of Yahweh’s renewal of a special relationship with him, he poured oil on the stone he had been using as a pillow and set it up as a witness to that relationship (Genesis 28:10-22).
Later Jacob and his father-in-law Laban made a pile of rocks as a means of recollecting the god who watched them both and as a witness to peace between them (Genesis 31:43-55).
When the people of Israel first build a city, it is not as an expression of their rebellion against Yahweh but as a result of their slavery to Pharaoh (Exodus 1:8-14). They build this monument to the gods of power as slaves to those gods and their minions.
Egypt, we may recall, was a son of Ham (Genesis 10:6). Noah had cursed Ham with slavery to his brother Shem—the ancestor of Abraham (Genesis 9:24-27). Here now we witness a perverse reversal of this curse. Pharaoh devoted himself to the Olympian gods of power to reverse the curse of the one odd god of freedom. For a time, his devotion to these false gods seemed justified.
Pharaoh sets the Israelites to constructing the cities of Pi-Thom (“House of Thom [an Egyptian god]) and Ramses: the first cities dedicated to the large-scale storage of grain. Pharaoh adds economic powerhouse to the expressions of control already embodied by the city.
(We continued today to follow Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City (pp. 23-7) in our reflections on the biblical witness to the city.)