A compact, settled area, greater in size, population, or importance than a town or village. The Hebrew word ʽir, translated “city,” occurs nearly 1,100 times in the Scriptures. Sometimes the word qir·yahʹ (town) is used as a synonym or in a parallelism
“Settlements” (Heb., chatse·rimʹ), “dependent towns” (Heb., ba·nothʹ), and “villages” (Heb., kepha·rimʹ), also mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, were distinguished from “cities” and “towns” in that they were not walled-in communities but were associated with the open country. (1Sa 6:18) If located in the suburbs or immediate vicinity of a fortified city or town, these communities were described as “dependent towns,” literally “daughters” of the walled-in city. (Nu 21:25; see DEPENDENT TOWNS.) The Law of Moses also made a legal distinction between the walled cities and towns, and the unwalled settlements and villages. If a person living in an unwalled settlement sold his house, he always retained the right to buy it back, but if unable to, it was returned to him during the year of Jubilee. When, on the other hand, a house in a walled city was sold, the seller had to repurchase it during the coming year or the property remained irrevocably that of the purchaser, except in the case of Levite cities. (Le 25:29-34) The same distinction is maintained in the Christian Greek Scriptures, where poʹlis usually denotes a walled “city” and koʹme usually refers to an unwalled “village.” The Greek word ko·moʹpo·lis in Mark 1:38 may be rendered ‘village town’ or ‘village city.’ (Compare Int.) John called Bethlehem “the village where David used to be,” and Luke (aware that Rehoboam had fortified the village) spoke of it as a city.
The first city builder was Cain, who named the city after his son Enoch. (Ge 4:17) If there were other cities before the Flood, their names disappeared along with them in the Deluge in 2370 B.C.E. After the Flood, the cities of Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar formed the initial nucleus of Nimrod’s kingdom. He then expanded this by building Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen (collectively described as “the great city”) to the N in the Mesopotamian Valley. (Ge 10:10-12) On the other hand, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built no cities but lived as alien residents in tents even when visiting towns and villages in Canaan and Egypt. (Heb 11:9) However, much later the spies who entered Canaan reported that there were many strongly fortified cities in the land.
Purpose in Building. People began to build cities for a number of reasons: for protection, industry, commerce, and religion. Judging from the number and size of the temples uncovered by archaeologists, religion was undoubtedly one of the principal motivations behind the construction of many ancient cities. The city of Babel with its religious tower is one example. “Come on!” said its builders to one another, “Let us build ourselves a city and also a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a celebrated name for ourselves, for fear we may be scattered over all the surface of the earth.” (Ge 11:4-9) The danger of enslavement to warlike individuals bent on conquest was another compelling reason for fearful people to band together into cities. They invariably fenced in and walled up these cities, and they closed the gateways at night and in times of danger.
City dwellers often worked at agriculture and livestock raising, which activities were carried on beyond the walls of the city; the typical farmer still resided inside the city rather than on his farm. Others engaged in handicraft industries. The cities served as storage depots, trade centers, and markets for distribution. Cities like Tyre, Sidon, and Joppa came to be primarily shipping and exchange centers between the traffic of the sea-lanes and the overland caravans.
Many cities began as simple villages, grew to the size of a town or the status of a city, and sometimes became great city-states controlling the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. With such growth, government and judicial power became concentrated in the hands of a few political and military leaders, and quite often the overriding power dictating the urban way of life resided in a hierarchy of priestly despots. It was, therefore, a striking contrast when Israelite cities began to appear on the world stage, the rule of which was in the hands of theocratically appointed administrators bound by duty to enforce God-given constitutional laws. Jehovah was that nation’s King, Lawgiver, and Judge, and when his visible representatives faithfully carried out their duties, the people rejoiced.
Selection of Sites. Selecting the location for a city depended on several factors. Since defense was generally of prime importance, ancient cities were usually placed on high elevations. Though this exposed them to open view, they were difficult to reach. (Mt 5:14) Coastal cities and those along the banks of rivers were exceptions. In addition to the natural barriers, often massive walls or a complex of walls and towers and, in some instances, moats were built around the city. (2Ki 9:17; Ne 3:1–4:23; 6:1-15; Da 9:25) As cities grew, it was sometimes necessary to extend the walls to include greater perimeters. Entrances through the walls were secured with strong gates that could withstand prolonged siege. (See FORTIFICATIONS; GATE, GATEWAY; WALLS.) Outside and beyond the walls were the fields, pasture grounds, and suburbs that were often undefended during attack.
A good nearby water supply was absolutely essential and not to be overlooked when selecting a site for a city. For this reason it was counted ideal when cities had springs or wells enclosed within their limits. In certain instances, notably Megiddo, Gibeon, and Jerusalem, there were underground water tunnels and conduits to bring water inside the walls from sources outside. (2Sa 5:8; 2Ki 20:20; 2Ch 32:30) Reservoirs and cisterns were often constructed for catching and holding water during the wet season for use at a later time. In some instances the terrain was honeycombed with cisterns, as each household endeavored to have its own supply of water.
Common aims and purposes in building ancient cities led to great similarities in their design and layout. And, since centuries of passing time have made little change, certain cities today are very much as they were two or three millenniums ago. On entering the gates, one found himself in a large open place, the city’s marketplace, the public square, where all kinds of selling and buying were carried on, and where contracts were made and sealed before witnesses. (Ge 23:10-18; 2Ki 7:1; Na 2:4) Here was the public forum where news was received and passed on (Ne 8:1, 3; Jer 17:19), where the elders held court (Ru 4:1-10), and where the traveler might spend the night if perchance private hospitality was not extended to him. (Jg 19:15-21) Sometimes other accommodations were available in the city for the visitor.
Certain cities were built to serve special functions, as, for example, Pithom and Raamses, built by Israelite slave labor as storage places for Pharaoh (Ex 1:11), also Solomon’s storage cities, chariot cities, and cities for his horsemen (1Ki 9:17-19), as well as Jehoshaphat’s storage cities. (2Ch 17:12) Forty-eight cities were set aside for the Levites
The size of many ancient cities can be figured from the remains of their walls, but population figures cannot be estimated with any degree of certainty. Regarding Nineveh, we are told that it was a very large metropolis: “Nineveh the great city, in which there exist more than one hundred and twenty thousand men who do not at all know the difference between their right hand and their left.”
The name given to cities mentioned in the Bible usually had meaning and purpose
Figurative Use. In the Hebrew Scriptures, cities are used figuratively. (Pr 21:22; Jer 1:18) We find Jesus employing cities in his illustrations (Mt 12:25; Lu 19:17, 19), and Paul likewise in a figure of speech. (Heb 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) In Revelation cities are used to illustrate a number of things: “the holy city” trampled by the nations (Re 11:2), “the great city” called Sodom and Egypt in a spiritual sense (Re 11:8), the “great city, Babylon” (Re 18:10-21; 17:18), and “the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God and prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”