Chance and the casting of lots in the Bible

September 29, 2023

Chance and the casting of lots in the Bible

Image: Aaron casting lots. Jules & Jenny, Wikimedia Commons

Andrew G. Shead

A lot produces a humanly uncontrolled outcome. We attribute that outcome to physical forces, but the ancients attributed it to the spiritual force of a deity’s will (both could, of course, be true at once). The more unpredictable an outcome, the more ‘chancy’ we consider it; but the presence of an invisible hand renders chance an illusion.

The casting of lots in order to determine the deity’s will was a universal practice in biblical times. The sailors used lots to identify Jonah’s responsibility for the storm (Jonah 1:7), and Haman used lots to pick a lucky day for executing his plan to slaughter the Jews (Esther 3:7). In pagan societies lots were a form of divination, and one of the Babylonian king’s divinatory actions is interpreted as lot-casting in Ezekiel 21:21–22 (NIV), alongside the use of arrows, idols, and livers. However, the Bible considers pagan lot-casting a ‘chancy’ activity. False omens were common, but pagan omens could be made true when Israel’s God directed them towards his ends (Ezekiel 21:23). The classic example is Haman’s lot, or pur, which gives its name to the Jewish feast of Purim, because his scheme rebounded on his own head (Esther 9:24–25). The king was the human agent of Haman’s downfall, but the name of the festival points to God as the hidden actor. The Lord’s unique ability to determine every event in a person’s life is captured in the psalmist’s reference to lot-casting:

Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
            I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
            or take up their names on my lips.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
            you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
            surely I have a delightful inheritance. (Psalm 16:4–6)


The reference to ‘boundary lines’ is noteworthy. We do not read of Israelites casting lots to find lucky days; lots were authorised for specific occasions. These occasions provide clues to the significance of lot-casting within Israel’s wider life. 

1. General distribution. 

Most cases of lot-casting in the Bible distributed a set of things among a set of people without the involvement of a human decision-maker. In everyday settings this assured impartiality, such as when thieves or victors divided loot.[1] As Proverbs 18:18 puts it, ‘Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart’. However, there was no division between secular and sacred in Israel’s world, and we should not take these cases as simple acts of randomisation. The famous saying, ‘the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Proverbs 16:33), occurs in a book whose observations concern everyday life. 

2. Special distribution.

The great majority of distributions by lot described in the Bible were not everyday actions. Israel’s territory west of the Jordan was distributed among the tribes by casting lots ‘in the presence of the Lord’, namely, before the tent of meeting in Shiloh.[2] In order to keep land size and population size in proportion, the tribes were subdivided into clans with a lot for each.[3] The Levite towns were likewise allotted (Joshua 21). Every single Israelite lived the equitable, well-ordered life that the Lord—not others—had allotted them. The New Testament takes up lot-casting language to describe Christians who have received ‘an inheritance [by lot]’ among God’s people in his kingdom (Colossians 1:12).[4]

  When David’s temple was built in Jerusalem, numerous Levites were assigned daily tasks of serving, making music, and guarding the gates. For each task a roster was created by casting lots to determine who would serve and when (1 Chronicles 24–26; Luke 1:9). This, too, concerned the Lord’s presence, and it is suggestive that when the temple was rebuilt after the exile, lots were cast to create a roster for supplying wood for the altar, and to determine who would move to Jerusalem, ‘the holy city’, to repopulate it (Nehemiah 10:35; 11:1). Lots drew attention to God’s invisible hand settling his people around him and organising them to serve him. In the body of Christ, the living temple, God ‘divides’ the gifts of the Spirit among ‘each one, just as he determines’ (1 Corinthians 12:11), reflecting the ‘dividing’ of priests by lot in 1 Chronicles 24:5.[5]

3. Division.

The remaining examples of lot-casting divided chosen individuals from a larger group, generally through a series of binary decisions. Lots determined which of two goats was the scapegoat and which was ‘for the Lord’ (Leviticus 16:9–10); and lots were presumably involved in distinguishing Saul from the rest of Israel as the Lord’s anointed king (1 Samuel 10:20–22). Matthias was chosen to replace Judas by lot (Acts 1:26), so that his selection would be God’s sole choice, just as Judas had been Jesus’s sole choice.[6] Of particular significance for Israel were the Urim and Thummim, kept in the high priest’s ‘breastpiece of decision’ (Exodus 28:15 JPSV) and used for binary lot-casting (1 Samuel 14:41). When Aaron went into the sanctuary, he was said to ‘carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord’ (Exodus 28:30 JPSV). In cases where the information needed to obey a command (Numbers 27:21) or to enforce a law (Exodus 22:8–9) was hidden, the instruments of decision could be used to align the heart of the priest—which was the seat of his will—with the mind of God in the matter. In the new covenant, where the law is written on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), the hidden wisdom of God is revealed by his indwelling Spirit, and the Spirit-filled person ‘makes judgments about all things … for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:15–16).

4. The bigger picture.

Genesis 1 describes a world in which chaos, and hence chance, is replaced by order and predictability. In a fallen world, the land of Israel was to be an outpost of God’s well-ordered creation. The invisible source of this order—made visible in the division of the land by lot—was the presence of God in the central sanctuary. The prime instrument of his ordering presence was the law, which regulated Israel’s entire human and natural world (Deuteronomy 4:6–8). But sometimes the application of the law was unclear. So kings were given wisdom, keenly observing life’s regularities to perceive what was hidden and bring order into Israel’s life (2 Samuel 14:20; 1 Kings 3:28). Prophets were given revelation, admitted to the council of the Lord to see things hidden from humans (Jeremiah 23:18–24) and announce the outworking of the law in Israel’s history. And priests—the principal group responsible for administering the law—were given lots.

However, with God’s invisible plan made visible in Christ, the secrets of the universe have been laid bare, and there is no more need for the special casting of lots. We already know God’s will. It may not always feel like it, but all the information we need to make correct choices is contained in Christ. The epistles, in particular, show how the gospel determines the direction and the manner of our lives. Each day brings its choices, big and small, but in Christ we are set free to choose for ourselves, guided by faith expressing itself in love (Galatians 5:6). Through the Spirit we are no longer slaves but sons (Galatians 4:6), and our Father accompanies us in our choosing so that his own choice prevails.

On the other hand, I believe there is still a place for general distribution by lot, as a way of acknowledging the hidden hand of God keeping chance at bay. Why not pick names out of a hat for your next seating plan, so that the Lord can decide who talks to whom?

Rev Dr Andrew G. Shead is Head of Old Testament and Hebrew at Moore Theological College, Sydney.


[1] Psalm 22:18; Proverbs 1:14; Obadiah 11; Nahum 3:10; Matthew 27:35; cf. Judges 20:9.

[2] Joshua 14:2; 18:1–10; 19:51; cf. Micah 2:5.

[3] Numbers 33:54; Joshua 15:1; 18:11, etc.

[4] See also Acts 26:18; 2 Peter 1:1.

[5] See LXX.

[6] Acts 1:17 makes this connection by using lot-casting language figuratively.

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