Human beings were created to build a world. According to Genesis, humanity is to exercise dominion over the earth … to multiply and fill the earth. Psalm 8 declares.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,We are creators in the Creator’s image and vice-regents over creation. We are participants in our own provision and in the provision for our habitat. This is essential to who we are as humans.
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Ps 8:3-8, NRSV)
But Genesis tells us that this vision has been marred. With the fall, relationship between God and humanity, human beings with human beings, and human beings with the created order is corrupted. The ground that should give abundance yields produce only through toilsome labor. Relationships deteriorate. Cain kills his brother Abel without remorse. Upon being sent into exile, Genesis records:
Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Gen 4:16, NRSV)“Nod” means “wandering.” The imagery is of Cain settling in the land of wandering. An act of futility if ever there was one. The passage goes on to say:
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. (Gen 4:17-18, NRSV)While today we see society as a collection of social institutions, cultural anthropologists tell us that ancient cultures saw only two institutions: kinship and politics. All other institutions are bound up in these. Note what Cain does: He begins a kinship line and builds the first city. “Enoch” means “initiated.” Cain is initiating a world in the absence of God. The remainder of Genesis 4 tells of the emergence of animal husbandry, music, and metal-working. While these things all seem to be a natural expression of human creativity they are emerging in the land of Nod, the land of wandering.
Cain’s banishment creates a dilemma. As a human being, Cain’s impulse is to build. But the impulse was designed to work in conjunction with God and his vision for the world. Cut off from God, efforts at building a true home are futile. Two choices present themselves. He could return to God and be restored to a truly meaningful existence, but he refuses, or he can try to construct a meaningful live apart from a God, which is futile. So he settles for what humanity has done ever since: Diversion. We join together to construct a mutually reinforcing reality that gives a sense of meaning and order, and altars at which to worship, diverting our attention from our true dilemma:
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (Rom 1:20-23, NRSV)But this is not the end of the story.
Nearly four millennia ago, there was as a city in Canaan called Shalem. The earliest reference to the city was 1850 B.C.E. in Egyptian texts. Baal was the predominate god of the Near East and each locality had its own version of Baal. Shalem was the Baal for its region. Cities of the Near East like Shalem weren’t just large communities. They were the very incarnation of the deity worshiped. Shalem symbolized Venus, the evening star. It conveyed the idea of completeness and fulfillment, the culmination of the day. In the Bible, we first encounter Shalem in Genesis 14:18 where the priest-king Melchizedek comes out to bless Abraham. (The anglicized version of the name is spelled “Salem.”)
Ancient texts often referred to the city as Urushalim, meaning “foundation of Shalem.” David annexed the area of Urushalim to Israel after Israel had conquered Canaan. He made the city his capital altered the name. He took the first syllable for God’s name, “Yah” from Yahweh, and added to the front of the name: Yahurushalim. The anglicized name for God is Jehovah and the first syllable is “Je.” Therefore, the anglicized name of the city becomes “Jerusalem.” (Shalom may have evolved from the Canaanite word “shalem.”)*
"Shalem" originally meant completion and fulfillment through human idolatry. God enters the picture and infuses a new vision of what completion and fulfillment really is. God adds his name to that which was humanity’s highest expression of world-building defiance toward him (Urushalim) and transforms it into God’s foundation of completion and fulfillment (Jerusalem). What is the imagery for the newly restored order at the end of the biblical narrative given in Revelation? The New Jerusalem!
As we reflect on economics, there are three things that I think need to be kept in mind:
1. The human trait of building worlds and infusing them with meaning is irrepressible. Transforming matter, energy, and data from less useful states into more useful states, and exchanging with each other, is integral to the world-building enterprise. It is of God and it is a holy thing.
2. Because of sin, human societies are always a result of a world-building impulse that has become disoriented and corrupted. There is always a mixture of legitimacy and idolatry.
3. God’s mission is about the redemption of humanity and the created order … the establishment of the new creation. That redemption includes redemption of economic activity as one piece of our world-building mission.
(* For more on the transformation of Shalem see Robert C. Linthicum, City of God. City of Satan: A Biblical Theology of the Urban Chruch, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991, p. 24-26.