What is the deal with casting lots in the OT and why is it used in the NT? Was this a valid way to determine the will of God? Can we cast lots today to determine God’s will for ourselves?
When I first became a Christian and began to read through the Bible, This subject led to some very challenging questions that I could not find answers to. Recently, our pastor, David, has been taking the church through the book of Acts on Sunday nights and last Sunday we read about how the disciples used lots to decide who the replacement disciple would be for Judas Iscariot. This reminded me of my own question that I had before and how many others may also be questioning this as well. Why would believers use what would appear to be a system of chance in order to distinguish the will of God? To answer this question, let’s look at 3 things. First, we will need to understand just what “lots” is and what it was used for. Second, we will look at an OT passage in which it was used. Finally, we will look at a NT passage in which it was used. After we perform these three steps, it will become very clear how God intended for us to distinguish His will. After all, that is the underlying importance of our initial question. How can I know the will of God?
1) Easton’s Bible Dictionary states:
“Lot — (Heb. goral, a “pebble”), a small stone used in casting lots (Num. 33:54; Jonah 1:7). The lot was always resorted to by the Hebrews with strictest reference to the interposition of God, and as a method of ascertaining the divine will (Prov. 16:33), and in serious cases of doubt (Esther 3:7). Thus the lot was used at the division of the land of Canaan among the serveral tribes (Num. 26:55; 34:13), at the detection of Achan (Josh. 7:14, 18), the election of Saul to be king (1 Sam. 10:20, 21), the distribution of the priestly offices of the temple service (1 Chr. 24:3, 5, 19; Luke 1:9), and over the two goats at the feast of Atonement (Lev. 16:8). Matthias, who was “numbered with the eleven” (Acts 1:24–26), was chosen by lot. ”
So it is safe to say that a lot was some material that would be symbolic for a person or animal or some choice to be made. A number of lots would be mixed together and whichever one was singled out was believed to be the person or choice chosen by God. It is well known that the casting of lots was performed by Jews and Gentiles alike in OT times. It is important to remember, however, as Easton points out, that the Jews cast lots to determine the will of God.
2) The book of Jonah contains a very clear example of casting lots in the OT. As you probably remember, Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh to warn the people to repent of their wickedness (Jonah 1:2). He then boarded a boat to flee to Tarshish and while en route a great storm arose (Jonah 1:3-4). The crew decided to cast lots to see who was responsible for this terrible event and the lot singled out Jonah (Jonah 1:7). So it is evident here in this example as in several other OT examples that the casting of lots was indeed a way in which the Israelites determined the will of God (Lev. 16:8; Josh. 18:6; 1 Sam. 14:42; Neh. 10:34; Es. 3:7; Prov. 16:33).
3) There is only 1 known instance in the NT in which the casting of lots is performed. This is found in the book of Acts 1:12-26. Specifically, here in this passage the disciples realize that the Scripture commands that another take the place of Judas Iscariot, who was the disciple that turned against Jesus (Acts 1:20, ref. Ps. 109:8). They found two men who could take his place, brought them forward, and cast lots to determine who would be the next apostle. “The lot fell on Matthias and so he was added to the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:26).
All of that being said, it is now possible to answer the initial question: why does the NT teach by example that major decisions should be decided by lot?
The answer to this question is simple and will become clear for the reader quickly. This can be answered with another question: what one of the biggest differences between a new covenant believer and an old covenant believer? The new covenant believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of himself (John 14:17) and the old covenant believer did not (John 16:7). What is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit? While He has all of the attributes of God one of these of particular importance here is the Holy Spirit’s omniscience which allows us to understand the deep intricacies of God of which His will is part of (1 Cor. 2:10-11). While we do not know everything of God (Romans 11:33) it is clear that the Holy Spirit is our source for His will. This being said, it is clear why the casting of lots is no longer a Biblical way to determine the will of God. Believers in Jesus Christ have the Holy Spirit and so the casting of lots is no longer necessary.
If you look back in passage in Acts, you will notice that the Holy Spirit was promised to be coming soon (Acts 1:5) but had not come yet. He would begin His earthly ministry after the casting of lots for Matthias (Acts 2).
So the single NT passage supporting the casting of lots to determine Gods will is valid because it was before the advent of the Holy Spirit in believers, but is not valid following Acts 2 and today because of the advent of the Holy Spirit in believers.
Does anyone else agree or have a differing opinion?
M.G. Easton, Easton's Bible Dictionary (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897).