What were people in biblical times doing when they cast lots? Should Christians practice this in decision-making today? Is casting lots a justification for gambling?
Casting lots in biblical times
The practice of rolling dice or selecting the short straw to make important decisions was common in biblical times. The practice often appears to relate to inheritance or entitlement rather than fate.
- The Israelites sometimes determined the will of God by casting lots (e.g. Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8).
- Special favours were granted by lot (e.g. Leviticus 16:8-10; Micah 2:5; Nehemiah 10:34; 11:1).
- The tribes of Israel divided the promised land by casting lots (e.g. Numbers 26: 52-56; 33:54; 36:1f; Joshua 14:1-2; Ezekiel 45:1; 48:29).
- Charges of guilt were confirmed by casting lots (Joshua 7:13-18).
- Israelite kings were chosen and tactical military decisions decided by lot (e.g. 1 Samuel 10:20-23; 14:41f; Judges 20:9).
- Saul determined that his son Jonathan had eaten honey by drawing lots (1 Kings 14:58).
- Priests and administrators were assigned duties by lot (e.g. 1 Chronicles 24:5-7, 31; 26:14-16; Luke 1:9).
- The practice of casting lots is commended as a reliable means of conflict resolution (Proverbs 18:18).
- Pagan sailors used lots to identify Jonah as the source of ill fate and threw him overboard (Jonah 1:7).
- God’s will is said to be revealed to pagan kings through lots (Ezekiel 21:21).
- Lots were cast to determine the recipients captives and booty in wartime (Obadiah 11; Nahum 3:10; Psalm 22:18).
- All four Gospels have the soldiers casting lots for the garments of Jesus at his crucifixion (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) – and John sees this as the fulfilment of Psalm 22:18.
- Apostles cast lots, following a time of prayer, to determine who should succeed Judas as one of the Twelve (Acts 1:23-26).
- Paul teaches that Christians were chosen in Christ (lit. [Christ] “in whom our lot is cast” – Ephesians 1:11).
It appears that guidance by casting lots was permitted in ancient Israel only when carried out in obedience to God, who was free to refuse to give an answer (e.g. 1 Samuel 14:37; 28:6). Although lots may appear to be ruled by fate, or the randomness inherent in the universe, it seems that it was generally understood in ancient Israel that the sovereignty of God overrides this (Proverbs 16:33).
The book of Esther celebrates the Jewish festival of Purim, named after the pur, small clay cubes, similar to modern dice, used by ancient pagans to discover the will of the gods. Ironically, Haman, the main antagonist in the Esther narrative, used the pur to determine the date on which the Jewish people were to be annihilated, but it was actually the day of his own death by impalement. What appeared to be coincidence ultimately delivered extraordinary favour for the people of God, but there is no indication that they were required to use the pur to discover God’s will.
Christian philosopher Dallas Willard observes that God “spoke” to individuals or groups within the biblical record in six ways:
- phenomenon plus voice
- supernatural messenger or angel
- dreams and visions
- audible voice
- the human voice
- the “human spirit,” or the “still small voice.”
To this list we could legitimately add the casting of lots.
Decision-making in the church today
Should our churches, then, reintroduce the practice of casting lots? Could decisions at Association meetings be made in this manner? Is the casting of lots, undergirded by the faithful prayers of God’s people, preferable to other reliable methods of discerning the will of God? Or is it merely arbitrary, capitulation to fate, an easy way out? Did the need for decision by lots pass away after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or when the canon of Scripture was completed or determined?
Throughout history, theologians and pastors have offered different answers to these questions, and this is not the place to assess the reasonableness of their thought or motives. However, it seems clear that, when accompanied by prayer, and by godly leadership and administration, the casting of lots is a legitimate means for decision-making.
The fact that the practice has fallen out of favour, or into disuse, in an era devoted to the exaltation of human agency and rational argument in church life (ironically despite the encouragements of postmodern ways of thinking), does not necessarily imply that it is careless, out-dated or ungodly. Perhaps we shall see a resurgence of the practice in church life. Perhaps we should cast lots to determine whether this is the way to go.
Casting lots and gambling
Is the biblical practice of casting lots a justification for gambling? There are analogies between the presumed randomness of the outcome of casting lots and modern gambling activities such as lotteries, pokies and other games of chance. However, there is no logical link between gambling and the biblical practice of casting lots. The detrimental impacts of gambling illustrate the substantive difference between gambling for monetary gain and casting lots for decision-making.
Gambling is a popular form of entertainment, but its addictive potential and capacity to subvert the common good leads many Christians to conclude that it should be avoided – especially when there are many other less harmful forms of entertainment available for consumption.
 Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 93-105.
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.