Regarding the practice of 'cast lots' in the Old Testament. Was this used by Jews only or did others use this method?

  • Matthew 27:35 says that Roman soldiers cast lots. So do Mark 15:24 and Luke 23:34. John 19:24 gives more detail. Jun 7 '19 at 2:06

Regarding the practice of “cast lots”. Was this done by Jews only or did others practice it?

The casting of lots was almost universally done in most cultures in the Old Testament times.

In Judeo-Christian tradition

Casting of lots occurs relatively frequently in the Bible, and many biblical scholars think that the Urim and Thummim served this purpose. The Hebrew Bible contains several examples of the casting of lots as a means of determining God's will:

  • In the Book of Leviticus 16:8, God commanded Moses, "And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat."

  • According to Numbers 26:55, Moses allocated territory to the tribes of Israel according to each tribe's male population and by lot.

  • In Joshua 7:14, a guilty party (Achan) is probably found by lot.

  • In the Book of Joshua 18:6, Joshua says, "Ye shall therefore describe the land into seven parts, and bring the description hither to me, that I may cast lots for you here before the LORD our God." The Hebrews took this action in order to know God's will as to the dividing of land between the seven tribes of Israel who had not yet "received their inheritance". (Joshua 18:2).

  • In the First Book of Samuel 14:42, lots are used to determine that it was Jonathan, Saul's son, who broke the oath that Saul made, "Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies." (1 Samuel 14:24).

  • In the Book of Jonah 1:7, the desperate sailors cast lots to see whose god was responsible for creating the storm: "Then the sailors said to each other, 'Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.' They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah."

Other places in the Hebrew Bible relevant to divination include:

  • Book of Proverbs 16:33: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from Yahweh and 18:18: The lot settles disputes, and keeps strong ones apart."

  • Book of Leviticus 19:26 KJV "... neither shall you practice enchantment, nor observe times." The original Hebrew word for enchantment, as found in Strong's Concordance, is pronounced naw-khash'. The translation given by Strong's is "to practice divination, divine, observe signs, learn by experience, diligently observe, practice fortunetelling, take as an omen"; and "1.to practice divination 2.to observe the signs or omens". Times in the original Hebrew is pronounced aw-nan'. Its translation in Strong's is "to make appear, produce, bring (clouds), to practise soothsaying, conjure;" and "1. to observe times, practice soothsaying or spiritism or magic or augury or witchcraft 2. soothsayer, enchanter, sorceress, diviner, fortuneteller, barbarian...". In the Hebrew-Interlinear Bible, the verse reads, "not you shall augur and not you shall consult cloud".

  • Deuteronomy 18:10 "let no one be found among you who [qasam qesem], performs [onan], [nahash], or [kashaph]".2 qasam qesem literally means distributes distributions, and may possibly refer to cleromancy. Kashaph seems to mean mutter, although the Septuagint renders the same phrase as pharmakia (poison), so it may refer to magic potions.

  • In the Book of Esther, Haman casts lots to decide the date on which to exterminate the Jews of Shushan; the Jewish festival of Purim commemorates the subsequent chain of events.

  • In I Chronicles 26:13 guard duties are assigned by lot.

  • To Christian doctrine perhaps the most significant ancient Hebrew mention of lots occurs in the Book of Psalms, 22:18 "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." This came to be regarded as a prophecy connecting that psalm and the one that follows to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, since all four gospels (for example, John 19:24) tell of the Roman soldiers at Jesus's crucifixion casting lots to see who would take possession of his clothing. (That final act of profanation became the central theme of The Robe, a 1953 film starring Richard Burton.) -

  • A notable example in the New Testament occurs in the Acts of the Apostles 1:23–26 where the eleven remaining apostles cast lots to determine whether to select Matthias or Barsabbas (surnamed Justus) to replace Judas. - Cleromancy (Wikipedia)

The Jewish Encyclopedia is very clear that other pagan cultures in the Old Testament cast lots:

Means of determining chances. Primitive peoples, and occasionally those on a higher plane of culture, resort to lots for the purposes of augury. They spin a coconut or entangle strips of leather in order to obtain an omen. Thieves especially are detected by the casting of lots, etc. (Tylor, "Primitive Culture," German ed., i. 78-82). The pagans on a ship with Jonah under stress of a storm cast lots in order to find out who among them had incurred the Divine anger (Jonah i. 7). Haman resorted to the lot when he intended to destroy the Jews (Esth. iii. 7). The Greek heroes cast their lots into Agamemnon's helmet in order to ascertain who should fight with Hector ("Iliad," vii. 171). In ancient Italy oracles with carved lots were used.

In Ancient Israel:

The ancient Israelites likewise resorted to the lot for the most varied purposes. Rhabdomancy was known as late as Hosea (Hos. iv. 12); and Ezekiel (Ezek. xxi. 26 et seq.) mentions the arrow-oracle of the King of Babylon, which was still used a thousand years later among the pagan Arabians (Wellhausen, "Reste Arabischen Heidenthums," 2d ed., pp. 126 et seq.; comp. Sprenger, "Leben und Lehre des Mohammed," i. 259 et seq.; Huber, "Ueber das Meiser-Spiel der Heidnischen Araber," Leipsic, 1883). As the priestly lot-oracles are discussed under Ephod, Urim and Thummim, and Teraphim, the present article deals merely with the lot in secular life. Joshua discovers the thief, and Saul the guilty one, by means of the lot (Josh. vii. 16 et seq.; I Sam. xiv. 42; comp. I Sam. x. 20 et seq.). Primitive peoples divide land and other common property by means of the lot. In Hebrew the word for "lot" ("goral") has retained the meaning of "share"; it has also acquired the more general meaning of "fate" (Isa. xvii. 14, lvii. 6; Jer. xiii. 25; Ps. xvi. 5; Dan. xii.). The land west of the Jordan is divided among the several tribes by lot (Num. xxvi. 55 et seq., xxxiii. 54, xxxiv. 13, xxxvi. 2; Josh. xiii. 6, xiv. 2, xv. 1, xvii. 1, xviii. 6-10, xix. 51, xxiii. 4; Ps. lxxviii. 55, cv. 11; comp. Ezek. xlv. 1, xlvii. 22). Jewish tradition, finding offense in this kind of allotment, declared that the land was really divided under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the lot being merely the visible means of confirming the division for the people (Sifre, Num. 132; B. B. 122a). Prov. xvi. 33 and xviii. 18 indicate that lots were cast in legal controversies. The wicked "part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture" (Ps. xxii. 19; comp. Matt. xxvii. 35; John xxix. 24). Booty of war is divided by lot (Joel iv. 3; Nahum iii. 10; Ob. 11; see also Judges xx. 9; Neh. x. 35, xi. 1; I Chron. xxiv. 5, xxv. 8, xxvi. 13 (see Herzog-Hauck, "Real-Encyc." 3d ed., xi. 643 et seq.).

In Talmud and Midrash.

According to the etymology of the word "goral," the lots were probably small stones, or sticks, as Hos. iv. 12 indicates. They were thrown, or possibly shaken (Prov. xvi. 33, "into the lap"), so that one fell out, whereby the case in question was decided. It can not be ascertained whether a tablet with writing on it is meant in Lev. xvi. 8, as the Mishnah assumes (Yoma iii. 9, iv. 1). At the time of the Second Temple the lot was prominent in the Temple cult, and customs were developed, after Biblical example, whereby the several offices were apportioned by lot. The priests drew lots in all cases where differences might arise (Yoma 37a, 39a-41a, 62a-63b, 65b; Zeb. 113b; Men. 59b; Ker. 28a). In Tamid i. 2 the overseer of the Temple calls for the lot; and Yoma 24b records a discussion whether the priests shall draw lots in holy or in secular garments. Lots were cast four times in succession (Yoma iv. 1). The Prophets increased the four classes of priests that returned from the Diaspora to twenty-four; they mixed up the names of the additional ones and placed them in an urn (κάλπη) and then let each of the four original classes of priests draw five names (Tosef., Ta'an. ii. 1, and parallel passages). The urn was originally made of cypresswood; but the high priest Ben Gamala had one which was made of gold (Yoma iii. 9); hence drawing lots from it created a sensation (Yer. Yoma 41b, below). In the sanctuary the lots were taken out by hand (Yoma 39b, 40a). The lot was either a black or a white pebble (Yer. Yoma iv., beginning), or was made of olive-, nut-, or cypress-wood (Yoma 37a). A third kind, consisting of pieces of paper with writing on them (πιττάκιον), is frequently mentioned.

Many facts seem to indicate that choosing by lot was common in post-Biblical times. Moses chose the seventy elders (Num. xi. 26) by selecting six men from each of the twelve tribes, and then placing seventy-two pieces of paper (πιττάκιον), of which two were blank, into an urn, one being drawn by each man. He proceeded similarly in determining the 273 first-born who were to pay each five shekels ransom, 22,273 tickets in all being drawn (Yer. Sanh. 19c, below, and parallel passages). Eldad and Medad were, according to Targ. Yer. to Num. xi. 26, among the elders who drew lots. Jacob's sons also drew lots to decide who should take Joseph's coat to their father (Gen. R. lxxxiv.). Achan attempted to bring the casting of lots into discredit when he said to Joshua: "If I order you and the high priest Eleazar to draw lots, one of you will certainly be pronounced guilty" (Sanh. 43b). Nebuchadnezzar's casting of lots (Ezek. xxi. 25 et seq.) is mentioned; but, according to the vernacular of the time, the Greek word κλῆρος is used, which occurs also inActs i. 26 (Lam. R., Preface, No. 5; Midr. Teh. x. 6; comp. ib. x. 5 on casting of lots among the Romans, and Krauss, "Lehnwörter," ii. 545b). - Lots (Jewish Encyclopedia)

  • "Many facts seem to indicate that choosing by lot was common in post-Biblical times." - Did you intend "Post-Biblical"? If you did, what do you mean? If you meant "pre-Biblical", again, what do you mean by that? Cheers Jun 12 '19 at 17:18

Esther 3:7 - Haman cast lots, that is the Pur in the city of Susa during the Persian Empire to decide what day they would annihilate all the Jews. It seems as if it was an accepted practice within the administration of the Persian royal court.

From "Pur",the "lot" in the Akkadian language (Esther 9:24) the Jewish festival of Purim on 14 and 15 of Adar, a month before Passover, is named.

Because Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to consume them, and to destroy them;

But when Esther came before the king, he commanded by letters that his wicked plot, which he devised against the Jews, should return upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.

Wherefore they called these days Purim after the name of pur (Esther 9:24-26).

[[ Incidentally, and interestingly, the passage Esther 9:24-26 leaves ajar the possibility that "Purim" is named after the word "son", because a stress is put upon the fact Haman was a son, and that the plot included his own sons who were all hanged.

"Son" in Persian is "pur"/"pour".

I quote: the suffix “-pour” in Persian surnames is the same as the Greek “-opoulos”, which means “son of”, eg Amanpour: “Son of Aman”. ( https://www.quora.com/What-does-pour-mean-in-Persian-names-such-as-Aryanpour-and-Amanpour ).

So some Jews of old might have said the word comes from Persian "son" and some from Akkadian "lot", so the Bible writer remained a bit ambiguous so as to please everybody. ]]

  • Thanks Andrew, I appreciate your thoroughness.
    – Tim
    Jun 8 '19 at 23:01

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