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Inductive Bible Study on Joshua 20-21 – Free Series for Small Groups or Personal Study

Chapter 20

Discussion Questions

  • What is a city of refuge?
  • In what passage had instruction first been given about the city of refuge? (Nehemiah 35:11-12)
  • Why did God command for cities of refuge to be established?
  • What do these show us about God’s character?
  • What kind of deaths might verse 3 refer to? What does premeditation mean and why is the punishment different for crimes with premeditation? What does this show us about the importance of motives?
  • What would the punishment be for these types of deaths?
  • What can we learn about how God does or does not hold the perpetrator responsible for this?
  • Do you feel the punishment is just? Why or why not?
  • Why does the perpetrator have to suffer consequences when it was just an accident? What important lessons does this teach us about personal responsibility?
  • How can we better avoid dangerous accidents?
  • What is an avenger of blood?


Numbers 35 – More information about cities of refuge.

Genesis 9:5-6 – And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

Deuteronomy 19:4-5 – This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life.

Hebrews 6:18-20 – God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.

Verse by Verse Commentary

1. Joshua obeys the commands passed down by Moses – Joshua was very careful to obey all of the commands that Moses passed down to him. He was the leader of an entire, but he had a higher leader. Obedience is the essence of being a disciple of the Lord. All of his training and knowledge and experience would have been useless if he did not obey what he had learned. Like Joshua, we need to be careful to obey all of the Lord’s commands in our lives.

2. Description of the types of cases whereby a person could flee legally to a city of refuge and be protected – See Numbers 35. Cities of refuge were a way to implement justice, not thwart it. Murderers would still be punished accordingly by following the law in Numbers 35:30. God laid out several ways that the judges could discern the intent of the accused. If the perpetrator held a heavy object and used it to attack someone, then it is murder. Likewise if he was already enemies of this person and with premeditation attacked them and they died, then it is murder. In these cases the murderer would not be protected in the city of refuge.

But sometimes accidents happen. If a person accidentally killed someone else then he could be protected in the city of refuge. Likewise if there was a sudden disagreement and a person pushed someone else and then that person somehow fell and struck their head and died, the perpetrator could also find protection since it was not premeditated. Thus we see a clear distinction between accidental killing and intentional murder.

3. The perpetrator had a responsibility to go to the city of refuge – God made provision of cities of refuge. These cities of refuge were very accessible. If you look at a map, it is clear that great care went in to choosing cities which would be nearly evenly spaced throughout the country so that no matter where you were, a city of refuge would not be far away. There was a place of protection that a sinner could go to.

At the same time, that sinner was also responsible to get up and go and find his way to the city of refuge. In this aspect, cities of refuge are somewhat similar to salvation. God has provided a way for us to be saved and our sins to be covered. It is available for all. Yet each us has a responsibility to respond to this offer and take steps to receive this salvation and grab hold of it. If a person made their way to the city of refuge, then credit goes the Lord for His mercy on their behalf. If a person refused to the go the city of refuge, then his own punishment would be on his own head. The cities of refuge were close so there was no good excuse for not taking God’s way out from the punishment that would come upon them.

4. The city of refuge would hold court to decide if the accused was indeed innocent of premeditation – Before the accused would be let in to the city of refuge, he had to state his case before the elders at the city gate (20:4). From Numbers 35:24 we see that the avenger of blood would also have been at the trial.

Both sides would be given the opportunity to make their case. The central question would be whether the killing was intentional and premeditated or an accident. If it was deemed to be an accident the city would receive the accused and protect him from the avenger of blood. He would then have to stay within the city limits until the death of the high priest. Why the death of the high priest?

  • Time would dissipate the anger.
  • A warning to others to be careful.
  • To show the value of life.
  • To point to Jesus as our high priest who died for our sins.

Avenger of blood – We can see from Numbers 35:30 that these people also had to operate within the law. They were not allowed to kill an accused person without a proper trial and confirmation from witnesses. Likely this avenger of blood would be a relative of the deceased. He would perhaps be a warrior, someone strong enough to force the return of the accused for trial. Perhaps also avengers of blood could be hired to bring back a fleeing murderer. But the main point is that these avengers of blood did not have free reign to carry out their own revenge. (Romans 12:19.)

5. We learn of God’s mercy – God is patient and gracious. It pains His heart to see the lives He has created snuffed out and destroyed because of carelessness. He is slow to anger and abounding mercy. He doesn’t quickly strike down the sinner. Instead He provides a place of protection, even a place of salvation. It is not through the persons’ goodness that he can enter that city, but only through God’s mercy.

6. We learn of God’s justice – Although God is merciful, He is also just. Imagine what it would be like if there were no consequences of taking others’ lives, even accidentally. There would be little value placed on human life. A “so what” mentality would develop. People would become more and more careless. At the same time an apathy toward life and death would spread.

God is the Creator of all life. It is just for Him to punish those who take away that life. The perpetrators of these accidental deaths might have to live in a city of refuge for decades after his crime. His life and career would be changed. His family would likely follow him to the city of refuge, meaning his crime would also deeply impact his family. But this is fair. After all, his carelessness impacted the life and family of the person he accidentally killed.

7. We learn of taking personal responsibility for mistakes that we make and carelessness – God holds us responsible for everything we do even accidents and mistakes. If you are driving down the road and look at your cell phone and cause an accident injuring others, you are responsible for this. If you are a doctor and make a mistake in a surgery or diagnoses and your patient suffers, you are responsible. If a friend asks your help and you forget and cause trouble for him, you are responsible. If you accidentally allow your child to do something dangerous and he hurts himself seriously, you are responsible. Many times we like to excuse our behavior by saying, “I forgot” or “It was an accident” or “Oops.” But these phrases do not excuse us from taking responsibility for our actions. (See Matthew 12:36, Exodus 21:33-34, Exodus 22:5, Leviticus 4:13.)

Carelessness is sin. We must be good stewards of what the Lord has entrusted to us. This applies to every area of our life including our kids, patients, students, money, job, etc. Can any of you give examples of careless mistakes that were very costly? How about examples of carefulness? How can we avoid being careless?

Unintentional sins- What kind of sins may fit into this category? Why do we sometimes commit these types of sins? Since we don’t know when we commit them, how can we avoid them? And also how can we receive forgiveness?

8. How can we escape God’s wrath? – In this passage we see that the sinners who carelessly took others’ lives could be saved from God’s wrath, but only by taking the one way out which He provided. Likewise, Jesus is the only escape for us, the only refuge. There are not many ways, just one (Acts 4:12). God mercifully has provided a way of salvation for us. We must follow His path to receive His forgiveness and mercy.

Chapter 21


Numbers 35:6-8 – God had told Moses to give to the Levites 6 cities of refuge and 42 other cities.


The Israelites obeyed God’s commands to give cities to the Levites. They do so generously and without complaint. Here we see evidence of the unity and peace among the tribes of Israel at this time. They were truly a brotherhood and put the needs of their brothers ahead of their own. They gave the full quota of cities to the Levites without arguing about it. Neither did they try to give the worst cities to them. When God’s people truly work together they can accomplish great things.

Joshua 21:43-45 – The key figure in this passage is the Lord. He gave them the land as He had sworn. He gave them rest on every side. He gave their enemies into their hands. He fulfilled every one of His good promises to them. Not even one failed. What can we learn about the Lord from this? What lessons can we see here that still apply to our lives today?

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