The practice of casting lots in the Bible refers to the ancient method of seeking God’s will by the random selection or drawing of objects. It was commonly used by the Israelites and other ancient peoples to make decisions, assign duties, or determine God’s purpose. Though the exact method is not explained in detail in Scripture, it seems to have involved objects like stones, sticks, or bones being thrown or drawn to reach a decision or receive divine guidance. Here is an overview of what the Bible teaches about the practice of casting lots:
1. Examples of casting lots in the Bible
There are numerous examples in the Old and New Testaments of casting lots being used to discern God’s will or make decisions:
- The land of Canaan was divided among the 12 tribes of Israel by lot (Numbers 26:55)
- The scapegoat on the Day of Atonement was chosen by lot (Leviticus 16:8)
- Saul was selected as king over Israel by lot (1 Samuel 10:20-21)
- Joshua cast lots to identify Achan as the offender in the battle of Ai (Joshua 7:14-18)
- Nehemiah cast lots to determine who would live inside the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:1)
- The 12 apostles cast lots to choose Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:26)
- Sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who had brought God’s wrath (Jonah 1:7)
2. Casting lots as a way to determine God’s will
A main purpose of casting lots was to determine the will of God. The Israelites viewed it as a way to let the Lord give His decision on a matter and reveal His purposes. Proverbs 16:33 says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” They believed that even though the actual result was random chance, God was ultimately sovereign over the outcome. Therefore, casting lots was not seen as gambling, but rather humbly seeking and submitting to God’s judgment.
3. Casting lots replaced by the Holy Spirit’s guidance
For believers today, seeking God’s will and guidance is not done through casting lots, which was an Old Testament practice. We now have the complete revelation of God’s Word, and the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus said would lead His followers into all truth (John 16:13). While casting lots depended on external chance, Christians can turn to Scripture and the Spirit’s inner promptings to know God’s purposes.
4. Understanding casting lots in context
While casting lots may seem strange today, it made sense in the ancient world. With limited knowledge and no complete revelation from God yet, more tangible external means were needed to discern His will. However, now that Christ has come and the canon of Scripture is closed, we can evaluate it in its historical context. The lesson is that God is sovereign and can use any method to reveal His plans, but we must evaluate practices to see if they align with His Word.
5. Dangers of using lots for decision making
Although casting lots was acceptable in certain contexts in biblical times, believers must use wisdom regarding any use of “chance” for making decisions today. While God is sovereign, leaving choices entirely up to a random lottery could lead to poor and unwise decisions. Proverbs 3:5-6 sums it up well: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Our focus should be on prayerfully seeking the Lord’s wisdom, not basing important choices on randomized chance.
6. Biblical figures who used casting lots
Here are some of the major biblical figures who used the practice of casting lots to discern God’s will or make decisions:
- Moses – He cast lots to award property west of the Jordan River to the tribes of Israel (Numbers 26:52-56).
- Joshua – He cast lots to determine the allotment of land to each tribe and family in Canaan (Joshua chapters 18-19).
- Saul – He cast lots at the town of Mizpah to identify who had broken a holy oath, discovering it was his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:41-42).
- Jonah – The sailors on board his ship cast lots to figure out who was responsible for the storm (Jonah 1:7-8).
- Nehemiah – He cast lots to repopulate Jerusalem and determine who would live inside its walls (Nehemiah 11:1).
7. Events determined by casting lots
In addition to land allotments and assignments, here are some key events or decisions that the Bible records were determined by the casting of lots:
- The scapegoat on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:7-10)
- Saul chosen as the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:19-21)
- Achan identified for stealing devoted items at Jericho (Joshua 7:10-26)
- Matthias chosen to replace Judas as apostle (Acts 1:12-26)
- Soldiers dividing Jesus’ clothing at His crucifixion (Matthew 27:35)
- Priests’ duties in the temple were assigned by lot (1 Chronicles 24:5, 31)
8. Methods and objects used
The Old Testament provides some insights into how the process of casting lots was carried out:
- Objects like stones or sticks were placed in a container or pouch and shaken up (Proverbs 18:18).
- Lots could be cast into someone’s lap or onto the ground (Proverbs 16:33).
- They were often cast before the Lord at a holy place like the tabernacle or temple (Joshua 18:8).
- Ur–perhaps a type of pouch–was used for the lots (1 Samuel 14:41-42).
- High priest’s Urim and Thummim stones may have been a special lot oracle (Exodus 28:30).
The objects used likely differed between cultures and situations but allowed a random selection to be made, with the results determined by God’s providence.
9. Attitudes for proper use
For Bible believers who practiced casting lots, several spiritual attitudes were critical to do so in a proper way:
- Not using lots for selfish, trivial, or unholy purposes
- Solemn prayer preceding the use of lots, committing the outcome to God
- A spirit of humility, realizing God’s ways are higher than man’s
- Acceptance of the final result as God’s sovereign will
- Thanksgiving to God after the decision became clear
With the right perspective focused on God’s preeminence, casting lots helped His followers discern His purposes and walk in faith.
10. Relation to gambling and chance
Casting lots should not be equated with gambling. Gambling is avoiding the sovereignty of God and trusting in bare chance to obtain wealth or profit. Casting lots was practiced not for personal gain but spiritual discernment, recognizing that God controls all outcomes. However, any form of appeal to bare chance today rather than wisdom and the Spirit’s guidance is unwise for Christians.
That covers a broad overview of the biblical practice of casting lots – its methods, purposes, limitations, and lessons for Christians today seeking to understand God’s will and ways according to Scripture.