Q: What’s the story behind casting lots in the bible??
A: After Pastor Scott’s excellent answer about Divining Spirits, it seemed like a good time to tackle this question about casting lots. As P. Scott pointed out, the Bible routinely condemns practices such as divination, witchcraft and the like … so what makes casting lots different and what is it?
First, let’s let the Scriptures speak for themselves:
10 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, NASB)
The Bible strongly condemns practices that seek to manipulate and/or seek the help of the spirit world outside of the prescribed methods of YHWH, the God of the Bible. Notice that this particular text says that God Himself will drive those who resort to such practices out of the land!
As we dive into this question, it is of the utmost importance to remember that the Bible itself is a form of divine revelation – an interaction between the spiritual world and the physical world, given by a spiritual God to a physical people. Scripture routinely describes a supernatural reality (that is, a reality of a spiritual world and spiritual beings beyond and amongst our physical world).
The scientific minded skeptic may scoff here and think that this means that to believe in the Bible is the same as believing in fairies that make the vegetables in our garden grow. This is not the case. Unlike the stereotypical “simple-minded faith” that ascribes whatever we cannot explain to some mystical, unseen force, the Bible describes two very real realms that exist independent of each other – even though they can and do interact.
Our material universe was created by and for an immaterial God. He created the material out of nothing and sustains its existence by the power of His will. Yet, as His creation, this material world has natural physical processes that He instituted in order to govern its existence. Our scientists discover and describe these physical laws and principles. God told us up front that this is what He did:
4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. 5 Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. (Genesis 2:4-5, NASB)
God created: part of His creation was the processes (e.g. rain and humans to water and till the ground to produce fruit) that govern it. The mistake of the scientific minded skeptic is to think that a description of what happens explains the origins. God remains outside of the universe He made as the transcendent Creator and sustainer of all that exists (John 1:3).
The Bible also describes a very real spiritual realm that also exists independently of our physical world. This spiritual realm contains spiritual (immaterial) beings such as angels and demons.
While these two realms are capable of interaction (e.g. the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in the physical world defeated death, sin and the devil in the spiritual world – Colossians 2:13-15; and Satan’s ability to manipulate the physical world, 1 John 5:19), they do not depend upon each other. Both depend upon God for their existence as both realms are created by the Creator – whether physical or spiritual.
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him. (Colossians 1:16, NASB)
Therefore, the physical world does not depend on the agency of “fairies” to explain natural phenomena … both worlds are governed by laws and forces as part of their creation by God.
Throughout human history, we have attempted to bridge the gap between the spiritual world and the physical world. What modern science attempts to dismiss as unnecessary to explain our natural world misses the point entirely. Humans do not desire to interact with spirits simply to explain natural phenomena, but also to gain knowledge about and power over the material world. This is not to say that no one has ever resorted to such explanations simply because of ignorance of reality, but the fact remains that this is not the only reason that the physical has sought the immaterial.
Understanding this tendency of humans to interact with the spiritual, and understanding that the Bible reveals that there are two opposing sides within the spiritual realm (the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness), God puts stern warnings in His own revelation to humanity about the dangers of seeking to interact with the powers of darkness. It must be realized that interaction with the spiritual realms itself is not prohibited (as the Bible itself is a divine revelation of the spiritual to the material by God Himself!), but with the realm of darkness that is prohibited.
Since this is the case, we should expect to see divinely approved and divinely condemned practices of interacting with the spiritual world. As Deuteronomy 18 (above) lists condemned practices of interacting with the spiritual realm, the use of lots is part of the divinely approved methods for discerning the will of the Lord and seeking revelation from the spiritual realm empowered by God Himself (see Proverbs 16:33). Other methods of approved interaction with the spiritual realm is through the true Prophets (Deut. 18:17-22), through the Scriptures (Psalm 19 & 119), through the Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30), through dreams and visions (Daniel 1:17),and prayer (this list is not meant to be exhaustive, and I may be missing some!).
We see the casting of lots being ordained by God in many instances throughout the Scriptures and a simple search on Biblegateway (or any other related Bible searching software) will allow the interested reader to look up all of these instances and circumstances. It is interesting that the last instance of casting lots for divine guidance is found in the New Testament book of Acts, just prior to the institution of the “church age” by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Once the Holy Spirit comes and indwells believers as the new temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16) the need to “divine” answers from God becomes irrelevant. Now there is a source of divine revelation, empowerment and leading directly inside of each believer in Christ!
As we finish up, we should briefly describe what “casting lots” looked like, since it seems so foreign to us today. The reality is that it is probably more common than we think, since our culture is saturated with many divining practices that we think are harmless but are actually part of the condemned practices of divination.
Lots were either small stones or pieces of wood that would be thrown (“cast”) down, either onto your lap, the ground or some other surface. The results were then interpreted in some manner. All of the details are not clear from the Scriptures, but I imagine the “reading” of the results is similar to reading tea leaves or Tarot cards. To someone who is familiar with the practice, the whole ordeal makes sense. To the unobserved eye, it likely looked like a game. Today, having someone “tell your future” through tea leaves or other such processes would look similar to casting lots, but would be seeking knowledge of the future through the kingdom of darkness instead of through God’s revelation.
While the use of lots was ordained in the past for use by God’s people, it should no longer be the means of revelation sought today. Instead, the completed canon of Scripture (that is, the whole Bible), the Person of Jesus Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3; John 16:3) are all we need to guide our lives.
That’s the story of lots in the Bible!