Whenever you read the Bible, difficulties can arise due to not understanding the proper historical context, terminology, or the cultural elements that surround the text. There are many things within the Bible that are hard for a 21st century person to fully understand. One of those things is the act of casting lots. It’s mentioned in the Old Testament a number of times and even in the New Testament a handful of times. It’s a confusing topic, to say the least, but one that can be understood more with the help of a little information, So, what was the practice and reasons for casting lots in the Bible?
For modern readers of the Bible, there is limited access to understanding what lots exactly were. Some scholars suggest they could have been some type of sticks, flatter stones, a made dice, or something similar. The comparison most often used today would be to that of flipping a coin. For today, flipping a coin is often a way to settle a dispute without arguing, deciding what to do, and a way of keeping the peace between two or more interested parties.
In the Old Testament, the practice of casting lots is heavily associated with dividing up the land that the Jewish people were acquiring. God specifically instructed them to do this as a fair way of dividing up the land that He would give to them. Numbers 26:55 claims: “but the land shall be divided by lot; they shall inherit according to the names of the tribes of their fathers.” This is repeated a number of times in the Old Testament, especially within the book of Numbers. Numbers 33:54 says “and you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; there everyone’s inheritance shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your father.” The casting of lots, however, was not limited to dividing up the land. In Jonah 1:7, the sailors on board a ship with Jonah decided to cast lots in order to determine who had caused God’s anger to go against their ship. Additionally, different tasks and jobs were assigned to people for the temple through the casting of lots. 1 Chronicles 24:5 proclaims that “they were divided by lot, one group as another, for there were officials of the sanctuary and officials of the house of God, from the sons of Eleazar and from the sons of Ithamar.” Moreover, castings lots did not cease when the New Testament age came in.
In the New Testament, the casting of lots is not as prominently shown, but it is still visible. In Acts 1:26, the Apostles casted lots in order to find out who should replace Judas: “and they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” It appears, however, that casting lots was not limited to serious matters. While Jesus was hanging on the cross, Matthew 27:35 says that the soldiers who were nearby started casting lots in order to get his clothing: “then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet…” As backed up by that passage, it seems likely that the casting of lots was turned in to a type of gambling game.
After reading some important passages about the casting of lots in the Bible, it seems that the reasons for the practice were to make a decision, find out God’s will on a particular subject/topic, to gamble, and to fairly close a matter between two or more parties. Although there is much about the casting of lots that modern readers may never know, readers can gain some insight into the practice and reasons for it in the passages it is mentioned in. Additionally, the practice is no longer necessary due to having God’s completed Word and the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.
When a difficult topic or passage appears in the Bible, it is important to continue reading and trying hard to come to the best understanding possible. Sometimes, this will mean searching the Scriptures for other places it is mentioned, and other times it will mean searching historical data that helps shed some light on the passage(s). The casting of lots falls under such a category. It can be difficult to fully grasp, but when more bible passages are read and other data is given, a better understanding of the practice and reasons for it come to light.