What the Bible Says About Casting Lots

Soldiers casting lots

The practice of casting lots is found primarily in the Old Testament, though there are a few instances in which it was done in the New Testament. It is a practice that will often provoke questions in the mind of Bible students. The Bible says little about the specifics of the practice, so it is not possible for us to satisfy every question one might have with an answer from the Scriptures. However, let us consider what the Bible does tell us about the practice.

There are a few passages that describe the casting of lots almost as a game of chance. This was the case when the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garments as He hung on the cross (Matthew 27:35). It was prophesied by David that the soldiers would do this (Psalm 22:18), but it appears that any divine involvement was only to the extent of foreknowledge – knowing that the soldiers would do this and revealing the prophecy about it.

In most passages that discuss the practice, casting lots was done to determine God’s will. Notice what Solomon said:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).

This verse does not mean that everything that happens or is decided has been foreordained by God. Solomon wrote elsewhere, “Time and chance overtake them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The casting of lots was a practice done under the Old Law for matters which required a divine decision (cf. Leviticus 16:7-10). The apostles cast lots to determine who would replace Judas in their number (Acts 1:23-26). It did not produce a random outcome, but a divinely-decreed outcome. In the case of the selection of Judas’ replacement, it would “show which one…You [the Lord] have chosen” (Acts 1:24). The process of casting lots eliminated the influence of man in the decision, leaving it wholly in the hands of God.

The actual process is uncertain. Some have suggested that this was done using sticks, stones (either colored or with markings on them), or dice. However, the Bible does not tell us the actual method. Whatever method was used, the process would be similar to us flipping a coin or drawing names out of a hat. However the casting of lots may have been done, we can know that it was a way to determine a decision without human influence. Without divine guidance – such as was the case with the soldiers at the cross – it would produce a random result. With divine guidance, it would reveal God’s will in such a way that it could not have been mistaken for man’s decision.

Notice some occasions in which lots were cast that are recorded for us in the Bible:

  • Choosing the scapegoat on the day of atonement – “He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat” (Leviticus 16:7-8). Under the Law of Moses, God was very specific about the animals that were to be sacrificed to Him. In the casting of lots, He was showing which goat was to be killed and which one was to be released alive in the wilderness as the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:9-10).
  • Exposing the sin of Achan – “Rise up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, for thus the Lord, the God of Israel, has said, “There are things under the ban in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you have removed the things under the ban from your midst.” In the morning then you shall come near by your tribes. And it shall be that the tribe which the Lord takes by lot shall come near by families, and the family which the Lord takes shall come near by households, and the household which the Lord takes shall come near man by man. It shall be that the one who is taken with the the things under the ban shall be burned with fire…’” (Joshua 7:13-15). This is an example of casting lots to determine matters of justice (cf. Proverbs 18:18). A random person was not being chosen to be punished for the people. God was revealing the guilty party to them.
  • Dividing the land of Canaan – “Then the men arose and went, and Joshua commanded those who went to describe the land, saying, ‘Go and walk through the land and describe it, and return to me; then I will cast lots for you here before the Lord in Shiloh.’ So the men went and passed through the land, and described it by cities in seven divisions in a book; and they came to Joshua to the camp at Shiloh. And Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the Lord, and there Joshua divided the land to the sons of Israel according to their divisions” (Joshua 18:8-10). The fact that this was done “before the Lord” indicates that it was done with God involved in the process and determining the results of the lots.
  • Determining the duties in the temple – “Thus they were divided by lot, the one as the other; for they were officers of the sanctuary and officers of God, both from the descendants of Eleazar and the descendants of Ithamar” (1 Chronicles 24:5). “Their number who were trained in singing to the Lord, with their relatives, all who were skillful, was 288. They cast lots for their duties, all alike, the small as well as the great, the teacher as well as the pupil” (1 Chronicles 25:7-8). “To these divisions of the gatekeepers, the chief men, were given duties like their relatives to minister in the house of the Lord. They cast lots, the small and the great alike, according to their fathers’ households, for every gate” (1 Chronicles 26:12-13).
  • Exposing the sin of Jonah – “Each man said to his mate, ‘Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.’ So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah” (Jonah 1:7). The men who cast lots on this occasion were worshipers of other gods (Jonah 1:5) – though we do see that they feared God on account of the storm and worshiped Him after it ceased (Jonah 1:9-10, 14-16). However, though they were worshipers of other gods, God used their casting of lots to indicate that Jonah’s presence on the ship bound for Tarshish was the reason for the storm.
  • Selecting Judas’ replacement – “So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23-26). The apostles were not qualified to select other apostles. The apostles were all chosen by the Lord (Luke 6:13-16; John 15:16); therefore, the Lord had to select Judas’ replacement. The apostles understood this and prayed to the Lord to “show which one” He had “chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship” (Acts 1:24-25). He indicated His choice through this method.

Again, in these instances, God was revealing His will through the casting of lots.

Another important question for us to ask about casting lots is this: Is this a practice that ought to be done by Christians today?

On one hand, we may flip a coin (or some similar practice) to randomly arrive at a decision on an inconsequential matter (such as what restaurant we will go to for lunch). Though the practice may be similar to casting lots, the purpose is different because we are not seeking God’s will, we are simply wanting “chance” to make a decision for us.

On the other hand, we do not cast lots today for the purpose of determining God’s will. Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would come to “guide [them] into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit came upon them on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ ascension and fulfilled this promise (Acts 2:1-4). This is why the last time we read about the casting of lots was in the selection of Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:26) – before the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost. God’s will has been revealed to us in His word (1 Corinthians 2:10-13). He has given us “everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us” (2 Peter 1:3).

Casting lots as a way to determine God’s will was a practice for another time. It is no longer necessary today. Therefore, we should not expect to find God’s will expressed in this way. Instead, we must study God’s word to determine His will for us.

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