How did casting lots work?


I am studying the book of Jonah.  The mariner's cast lots to determine who the person was that was causing all the evil to happen to them.  I would like to know in greater detail how this worked.  Also, how did this compare to how Haman cast the lot to determine the date of slaughter for the Jews?  I also read about lots being cast to pick Judas' replacement.  Has prayer and faith replaced casting lots?


Casting lots was a way of randomly picking answers. Different things were used as lots, the most common were sheep knuckles. The sides were marked with values and worked similar to our modern-day dice. Another method was marking small sticks or twigs and dropping them down. The twig on top of all others "wins."

In Jonah's case, lots were used to narrow down who was responsible for the storm. "And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah" (Jonah 1:7). It was heathens who were casting the lots, but the indication is that God used the occasion to manipulate the results to show that Jonah was the cause. He did so because it furthered His purpose.

The disciples were trying to find a replacement for Judas Iscariot. They narrowed the possibilities down to just two people, but they could not decide between them. Thus, they prayed that Jesus would make the final decision, and the disciples cast lots. "And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:25). Keep in mind that either man would have been a good choice.

Even in the case of Haman, there is a possibility that God manipulated the results to accomplish His ends. Haman was a superstitious man. When Haman wanted to know when would be the best day to destroy the Jews, the lots indicated a day almost a year away. "In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, the lot), before Haman to determine the day and the month, until it fell on the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar" (Esther 3:7). That gave God plenty of time to arrange a complete overturn of Haman's plans.

Casting lots was never an alternative to prayer or faith. Nor should it ever be looked at as substitute for making decisions. Yet, when everything looks equal, casting lots is a way of breaking ties. It doesn't mean that God will always manipulate the results. We only know that God has on occasion done so when it served His purpose.

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