Journal entry 021612: Giving refuge

Imagine this possible scenario from Old Testament times, maybe about 1200 B.C.

A man had been running full-speed for almost 24 hours to reach the nearest City of Refuge. The evening before he had caused an industrial accident that killed another man, and now the victim’s brothers were chasing him to exact their revenge, something they were bound to do to protect their family honor. Our man was the husband to a young wife and father to two tiny babies and his only hope was to make it to one of the Cities of Refuge and then send for his own family to join him.

He could not believe he was still running. How could anyone have the energy to run all night and all day? The accident happened toward the end of the workday, yesterday, when it was getting too dark to work and they should have stopped but they didn’t. He was still on the job sight grieving over his lost friend when the other workers shouted that the brothers were on their way. One carried an ax, and they were determined to get revenge. “You have to go now,” the coworkers warned. “You have to run now or you’ll die too.”

“What about my wife and babies? Who’ll take care of them if I run away?”

“Who’ll take care of them if they catch you and kill you?”

All through the night and next day, the brothers chased him. Now they were closing the gap as they approached the city gates, knowing this was their last chance to fulfill their duty.

It was nearly sundown. Our man was depleted, dehydrated, and delirious when he finally reached the city. He saw the gates closing in front of him and thought how unfair to close them in his face after he’d run so far. He lunged forward through the opening and heard the gates thud closed behind him as he rolled across the dirt. He was so exhausted he couldn’t see. His eyes had shut down. Or maybe it was his brain.

He felt hands grabbing his shirt and dragging him to his feet. “No, please, don’t kill me,” he yelled as he swung his arms trying to escape. “I have my own babies. They need me. Please don’t kill me.”

Then he gave up. He couldn’t fight any more. His eyesight blurred and he couldn’t breathe. He’d run all night and most of the day without water and he was so dehydrated he couldn’t think. His tongue too swollen to speak, he thought he was saying words but they came out in gasps and grunts. Now that he’d stopped running, the lactic acid turned his legs into wood. He couldn’t have run another step even if he’d wanted to. There was no use trying. If they were going to kill him, do it now.

“Relax, son,” he heard a gentle voice say. It sounded like someone older, someone used to being in charge, someone used to taking over in hectic situations. “You’re safe now. You made it. You are inside the walls. You can stop running.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

“Be still. Just breathe. It doesn’t matter what happened. This city is your refuge. You are safe here.”

In the Bible books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, God laid out His plan for the Cities of Refuge. He designated six towns to which “a person who had killed someone could flee,” a safe haven offered freely even before the “crime” was committed.  God also told them to build smooth, wide, and well-marked roads to these Cities. He didn’t want them hidden or surrounded by country too rough for travel. No moats, no cliffs, and no checkpoints.

In addition, there were no screening processes or thresholds of innocence to pass before entering a City of Refuge. Instead, they were open and available to all. There would be an assessment of guilt eventually, but not right away, not until the refugee was safe. The overall purpose was to make it easy for someone to find refuge. They were not to make this onerous or difficult, but err on the side of grace. It was true prevenient grace; forgiveness offered in advance.

As I read about these Cities, I wondered: Was it good or bad to have your own town picked as a City of Refuge? Didn’t living there mean you would be surrounded by fugitives from the law? Would it, over time, become a town full of killers?

However, I always assume myself the person who doesn’t need refuge while everyone else does. In my own hypothetical scenarios, I’m never the one who needs to be saved. I always picture myself as the dispenser of grace rather than the receiver of grace. I’m a little ashamed that I see myself like that. Who do I think that I am?

The good news? Living in a City of Refuge meant you would be surrounded by grateful people who truly understood how lucky they were. Since gratefulness is so rare, a City of Refuge might have been the ideal place to live.

Grace is always risky, especially prevenient grace, offered before you need it.


“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

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