City and countryside

Cities convey a sense of community, security and human enterprise, versus the exposure and fragility of human survival in the countryside. However, the natural world can be a place of necessary solitude – for those in need of refreshment or for those on the run. In the Bible, both are locations of exile for Israel at different times, and both are places where God’s provision and presence is experienced.

Urban self-aggrandisement and sin

BabelThe earliest recorded ‘city’ in the Bible was that of Babel (Genesis 11:4). It was the place where human enterprise sought to emulate God’s creativity by building ‘a city and a tower with its top in the heavens’, not to honour God but to ‘make a name for ourselves’. Cities were thus associated with a focus on humanity rather than God, and a consequent fall from God’s standards into sinful behaviour. 
The next major cities mentioned in the Old Testament were Sodom and Gomorrah, which became a by-word for wickedness and were ultimately destroyed by God (Genesis 18:20-21; Genesis 19:24-25). Centuries later an Old Testament prophet, Jonah, was sent to warn the inhabitants of another city, Nineveh that their evil had been judged by God (Jonah 3:1-4). This time however, doom was averted by the Ninevites’ repentance (Jonah 3:8-10).

From Adam and Eve to the Promised Land

In contrast, the first recorded people of the Bible lived in the Garden of Eden, a natural paradise. Later, the early history of God’s chosen people was a semi-nomadic existence in the countryside of Canaan Genesis 12:1-5. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after him, live in mobile tent communities with their large flocks and extended families. 
After slavery in Egypt the Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness until they invaded the Promised Land which was fertile and ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (Joshua 5:6. Although taking possession of the cities was significant for their establishment in the land (see, for example, Joshua 6:1-5), it was the natural bounty of the countryside that was regarded as God’s special provision for his people.

Countryside as a place of escape

In the love poetry of Song of Songs, the countryside is a beautiful, fruitful place for the couple to be together Song of Songs 7:11-12. Psalm 23, attributed to David (himself a shepherd in his youth), evokes a pastoral scene as a place of rest, refreshment and encounter with God Psalms 23:1-3. In the New Testament Jesus likewise sought out solitary places to pray and be alone with God Luke 5:16
The countryside is also a place to escape from danger: 
From the above biblical perspective of the countryside being sustaining and associated with innocence, whilst urban life was sophisticated and full of temptation, arose the literary tradition of the pastoral. See Pastoral poetry in brief; The pastoral tradition.

Urban sanctuary

In Joshua 20:1-4, four cities are designated as ‘cities of refuge’ for those guilty of accidental manslaughter. However, the ultimate place of sanctuary for God’s people was the city of Jerusalem, built on Mount Zion. In it was built the Temple – a permanent, fixed ‘dwelling place’ for God’s presence among them 1 Kings 6:11-13. Housing the Ark of the Covenant, its positioning within Jerusalem guaranteed the continued centrality of Zion to Jewish life and faith.
Although Jesus traveled around during his ministry, the culminating events of his earthly life took place in Jerusalem. It is here that he was arrested, tried and crucified Matthew 26:57-59; Matthew 27:1-2; Matthew 27:27-31; Matthew 27:50-51. It is also one of several locations where he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection and where the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit first happened (Acts 2:1-6. Jerusalem therefore became a ‘holy city’ for Jews and Christians (and, centuries later, for Muslims).

Jerusalem judged

Being the location of the Temple did not guarantee Jerusalem immunity from attack. It was sacked by the Babylonians in 597BC and again by the Romans in 72AD, each event interpreted as a judgement by God on the lack of righteousness found within the city’s walls (Ezekiel 21:1-3; Luke 19:41-44; Luke 21:5-7). The Temple was regarded like a talisman, and honouring its rituals became a substitute for honouring God. After the exile of the Jews, the rebuilding of the city became a focus for the returning Jews, but the replacement was never deemed to be as glorious as the original.


Babylon was a city in ancient Mesopotamia, the centre of the large empire which sacked Jerusalem. It imposed its pagan practices on the exiled Jews and became a by-word for oppression of God’s people (Jeremiah 50:11-14. Later the name of the city was used symbolically to signify spiritual exile, corruption and oppression. 
In Revelation, Babylon stands for a worldly culture antithetical to Christianity and was personified as a splendidly dressed and morally degraded woman who rides on the back of a beast and oppresses the church Revelation 17:1-6

New Jerusalem

The New Jerusalem (Tapestry of the Apocalypse) image available through Creative CommonsUltimately, the symbolic city of Babylon is defeated by God, who creates a perfect new city, the New Jerusalem, which is portrayed as the true home of God’s people (Revelation 21:2-3). It is to be a perfect, holy city - gloriously beautiful, empty of suffering, full of the presence of God Revelation 21:22-25. Until they get there, God’s people are depicted as outsiders in the world; people without a lasting city or home who are seeking ‘the city to come’ Hebrews 13:14.


  • The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (c.600 BC) is a fable by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop contrasting simple countryside living with the dangers of the city
  • In John Donne’s Batter my heart, three person’d God (1633) the speaker imagines himself as a city in the grip of enemy forces. He longs for God to ‘overthrow’ him
  • In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811), the Dashwood sisters are confronted with new social and moral challenges when they travel from rural Devonshire to ‘winter’ in London
  • Charles DickensA Tale of Two Cities (1859) compares life in London and Paris during the French Revolution. The brutal treatment of the English poor is exposed, and events in France are held up as a warning to those in influential positions
  • In Cold Comfort Farm (1932) Stella Gibbons parodies the (then popular) romanticised accounts of rural life through the eyes of savvy urbanite Flora Poste. Flora invites herself to live on the farm of some distant relatives and sets about ‘modernising’ their ideas.

Other cultural references

  • In the Rastafari religion much biblical imagery takes on new significance. Modern western society is ‘Babylon’ – corrupt, materialistic and oppressive. Ethiopia is referred to as Zion. These are prevalent themes in reggae music.

Related topics

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.