Casting Lots in the Bible

What does it mean, to cast lots? Is it a Biblical mandate, or does the Bible condemn it? What should we make of this practice, used by Roman soldiers and Christian apostles alike?

 

An Introduction: The Division of the Land of Israel

Throughout the book of Joshua, God gives instruction to the eponymous character on the division of Israel among the twelve tribes. The casting of lots is used often in this section and seems to refer to some kind of random selection, like flipping a coin or rolling dice.

The casting of lots occurs 77 times throughout the Bible, with 70 of them found in the Old Testament. There are three examples that allow us to properly understand how we should understand this Jewish practice.

 

A Tool of Evil: The Casting of Lots for Jesus’ Garments

In Matthew 27:35, Roman soldiers are seen to gamble for Jesus’ clothing by casting lots. This is in fulfilment of Psalm 22:18, wherein David laments the theft and division of Jesus’ garments in the first person. So, if the soldiers who crucified Jesus are using them, lots must be evil, right?

 

A Tool of Good: The Casting of Lots for the Twelfth Disciple

In Acts 1, shortly before the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first sermon, the casting of lots appears for the seventy-seventh and final time in the Bible – and it’s for the purpose of replacing Judas. The disciples choose Bartholemew after casting lots to determine the replacement. Is the Bible advocating lots now?

 

A Tool of All Trades: The Casting of Lots for Jonah

In Jonah 1:7, Jonah is on the run from God. (That doesn’t work out too well, as you’ll find if you read it.) He’s awoken during the night as a storm rampages over his boat, bound for Tarshish. The sailors, recognising that the storm is no ill fate, cast lots to determine who is being punished by the God or gods. It turns out to be Jonah, and he’s duly cast overboard. So what do all these passages say about the casting of lots?

 

A Conclusion: The Coming of the Holy Spirit

It’s intentional that casting lots last appear just before the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Bible treats them as a pre-Spirit method of determining God’s will – or the gods’. It’s a tool that can be used by anyone – but it’s not in use today. The Holy Spirit changed that, as did the completion of the Bible.

So don’t cast lots, but don’t look down upon the disciples when they do it, or on Joshua when he does it. It’s not evil or good, it’s simply a thing that appears in the Bible.

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