In July, I began a new Bible reading plan.
I had finished school a month earlier and felt a little ungrounded. The last three years, much of my life and schedule had revolved around course deadlines and research projects. I was disoriented and sought a routine or practice that would help me find my way. At the beginning of July, we had a family reunion. As people shared memories of Grandpa and Grandma Derksen, their practice of daily Scripture reading and prayer was frequently mentioned. A couple weeks later, Mike and I went to Ohio to visit his family. I went to Grandma Robertson’s house to pick her up and saw her Bible laying open on the table. Grandpa and Grandma Robertson also had a practice of daily Scripture reading and prayer, which Grandma continues by herself.
I have spent countless hours reading Scripture throughout my adult life. I have followed various Bible reading plans and study methods. Sometimes I have focused on a few verses, sometimes on whole books. A lot of times, my efforts have been ambitious, like the time I read the Bible in 100 days. And, a lot of times, the goal has been smaller, like a verse a day. But in between these things, I have struggled to create a sustainable rhythm. Reminiscing about the faith and habits of my grandparents and Mike’s grandparents, I longed for something similar in my own life.
So I pulled a 1-year chronological Bible off the shelf and started reading it on July 24. Each day, I read the daily portion of Scripture, plus a Proverb (the chapter corresponding to the day of the month), and a Psalm (or 2 or 3 or 5, depending on the length, available time, and how much I specifically crave God’s word that day). I try to do this first thing in the morning, but it’s okay if I fit it in later. Some days, I read more than the daily portion of the 1-year Bible because I overlook the page markings. That’s okay.
This practice is both sustaining and sustainable. These are things I desperately need in my life, now and always. There is a comfort and stability that comes from devoting time and thought and energy to opening up God’s word each day. Some days, new insights jump out and grab my attention. Some days, it feels familiar and dependable. Either way, I know the regular habit is good for me. And today, the Scripture selection coincided with my personal calendar in a way that I could not have coordinated on my own, even with my best efforts.
In Numbers 35, God is in the middle of giving instructions to Moses for the nation of Israel. We refer to this collectively as “the law”. There are cleanliness guidelines, instructions for sacrifices and offerings, rules about land ownership, and provisions for the poor and foreigners. The priests came from the tribe of Levi. Because the Levites were to be devoted to serving in the tabernacle, they were not to be farmers and shepherds like the rest of the tribes. God designated 42 cities for the Levites to inhabit. Six of these cities were to be “cities of refuge”.
These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there. Numbers 35:15
Under the law, the general principle was “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life”. Taking the life of another resulted in losing one’s own life. The blood avenger would put the perpetrator to death. But there was a distinction between those who acted out of hate and those who did not act out of malice. For the latter, they were instructed to flee to the city of refuge for their protection awaiting trial before the congregation. If they were found to have unintentionally taken another’s life, they were to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, when they could return to their own land. These instructions were repeated in Deuteronomy 19 in the second giving of the law and again in Joshua 20, when Israel was preparing to finally enter the Promised Land.
In the middle of the law, which we often think of as weighty and overbearing rules to follow, is a striking picture of mercy and grace.
Thirteen years ago today, I killed someone. And I permanently and seriously injured another person. Unintentionally, of course. But my actions (or more specifically, failure of action) ended the life of one person and dramatically altered the life of another. Criminal and civil charges were filed against me. I sought forgiveness from the family. I paid restitution. I looked for other ways to right the wrong I had done to others. But I, myself, had been broken. Most days, it felt like I was irreparably broken. The next couple years were painful in so many ways. I didn’t know who I was, because someone who could end the life of another, intended or not, did not fit into the image I had of myself or everything I wanted to be. I was disoriented and unstable.
My friends and family gathered around me and offered prayers and words of encouragement. I know those words were spoken with love and concern and the best of intentions, but they often felt distant and out of reach. The words lacked substance or something to hold on to. The words sounded to my ears like they were for someone else, for something different than my situation. They didn’t fit.
But in the Old Testament, in Numbers and Deuteronomy and Joshua, in the Old Covenant, there were six cities of refuge.
- shelter or protection from danger, trouble, etc.: to take refuge from a storm.
- a place of shelter, protection, or safety.
- anything to which one has recourse for aid, relief, or escape.
There was shelter – for me.
There was protection – for me.
There was safety – for me.
There was relief – for me.
These words were something I could plant my feet on. Not all at once, of course. But when I felt ungrounded or disoriented, I could stretch out and touch it with my toes to see if it was really there. Over time, I started being able to put some weight on it. Slowly, tentatively. I had to learn how to crawl and then stand and then walk upright in this new place of safety. And thirteen years later, I am mostly grounded in it. Some days feel a little wobbly and off balance. But this city of refuge is a place where I can return to regain my footing.
This morning, as I followed the example of generations before me with a practice to keep me grounded, and by the grace of God in working all things for good, I am reminded that I am safe because the God of Israel set aside six cities of refuge.