Is civilization bad?

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. –Genesis 4:17

This message is continuation from two weeks ago.

Dear members and friends of the Swedenborgian Church,

The story of Cain and Abel is probably one of the most well-known stories in the world. This simple story includes a few important archetypal themes: the rivalry between brothers, the conflict between farmers and shepherds, and the battle between city builders and nomads, which caused the birth of standing armies and taxation. But to me personally, when the story itself is taken literally, it is far worse than the story of the talking snake. The reason is very simple: Cain killed his brother and left the family, yet he found a woman to marry and worse yet, he built a city! Where did his wife come from? What kind of people built the city with Cain? One of my youth pastors told me that Cain’s wife was offered by the devil, which gave me even greater trouble. It is quite clear from Genesis 4 that Cain built the first city and his descendants were “the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock,” “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe,” and the first who “made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.” At the time, it almost sounded to me like the whole civilization was built by the devil!

These days most biblical scholars agree that stories in Genesis 1-11 are mythical narratives, meaning they are archetypal stories. So, what is the message behind Cain and his descendants? Here we find the first and one of the most ancient warnings about the negative sides of civilization. This is well illustrated by Cain, who was so devoured by anger that he killed his own brother. According to Genesis, Cain was a hard worker; the first to till the ground. The story is too simple to make much of Cain, but it does describe him as impatient, arrogant, irresponsible, and a violent person. His offering was not accepted by God, most likely due to his own faults, but Cain’s logic was that ‘if I get rid of my brother who is favored by God, God will accept my offering.’ Sadly, this kind of logic is quite common in many people. They blame others for their own misfortune, most likely caused by their own mistakes or wrong choices. The Bible’s warning is that this mindset – one of impatience, arrogance, irresponsibility, and violence – is behind the advancement of civilization from the very beginning. Thus, the prime objective of civilization or the civilized world will never be for the good or advancement of everyone. And, as we know by now in 2018, this warning has been and remains true.

In my understanding, Creator God is not against civilization, but is concerned with how we build it and how we distribute its fruits!


Rev. Junchol Lee