The casting of lots is an ancient custom for deciding a question at issue. The method used was to cast pebbles or small bits or tablets of wood or of stone into the gathered folds of a garment, “the lap,” or into a vase, and then to shake them. The one whose lot fell out or was drawn out was the one chosen. The lot, like the oath, implied a prayer with it. Prayer was either expressed or implied, and Jehovah’s intervention was sought and anticipated. Lot (Heb., goh·ralʹ) is used literally and figuratively with the thought of “share” or “portion.”—Jos 15:1; Ps 16:5; 125:3; Isa 57:6; Jer 13:25.
Uses. Proverbs 16:33 says: “Into the lap the lot is cast down, but every decision by it is from Jehovah.” In Israel the proper use of a lot was to end a controversy: “The lot puts even contentions to rest, and it separates even the mighty from one another.” (Pr 18:18) It was not used for sport, play, or gambling. There were no bets, wagers, or stakes—no losses or winnings. It was not done to enrich the temple or the priests, nor was it done for charity. Contrariwise, the Roman soldiers did have selfish gain in mind when, as foretold at Psalm 22:18, they cast lots for Jesus’ garments.—Mt 27:35.
The first mention in the Bible of drawing lots is in connection with selecting the goats for Jehovah and for Azazel on Atonement Day. (Le 16:7-10) In Jesus’ time this was performed at Herod’s temple by the high priest’s drawing from a receptacle two lots that were made, it is said, of boxwood or of gold. The lots, respectively marked “For Jehovah” and “For Azazel,” were then placed on the heads of the goats.
Lots were drawn to determine the order of service at the temple for the 24 divisions of the priesthood. (1Ch 24:5-18) Here the secretary of the Levites wrote the names of the heads of the paternal houses, and they were evidently picked out in succession. Also, in this manner the Levites were allotted to temple service as singers, gatekeepers, treasurers, and so forth. (1Ch 24:31; chaps 25, 26; Lu 1:8, 9) After the return from exile, lots were used to arrange for the supplying of wood for temple service and to designate who should move into Jerusalem.—Ne 10:34; 11:1.
Although lots are not mentioned directly in connection with the Urim and Thummim placed by Moses in the breastpiece worn by the high priest (Le 8:7-9) and it is not known just what the Urim and Thummim were, nevertheless, they were used to settle a problem in a manner similar to two lots. The Urim and Thummim seem to be connected with the casting of lots at 1 Samuel 14:41, 42. They are sometimes spoken of as sacred lots. When a question important to the nation arose, upon which a decision could not be made, the high priest would stand before Jehovah and receive Jehovah’s decision by means of these sacred lots.
Jehovah commanded that the division of the Promised Land among the 12 tribes be performed by casting lots. (Nu 26:55, 56) The book of Joshua gives a detailed discussion of this, the word “lot(s)” occurring more than 20 times in chapters 14 to 21. Lots were drawn before Jehovah at the tent of meeting in Shiloh and under the supervision of Joshua and High Priest Eleazar. (Jos 17:4; 18:6, 8) The Levite cities were also selected by lot. (Jos 21:8) Jehovah obviously caused the lot to fall in harmony with his previous prophecy regarding the general location of the tribes.—Ge 49.
Lots were used to point out offenders. In Jonah’s case the mariners cast lots to find out on whose account the storm had come upon them. (Jon 1:7, 8) By the use of lots, Jonathan was pointed out as the one breaking Saul’s foolish oath.—1Sa 14:41, 42.
Lots were used by the enemies of Israel in dividing war booty and captives. (Joe 3:3; Ob 11) Haman had “Pur, that is, the Lot” cast as a form of divination to determine the auspicious day for the extermination of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. (Es 3:7) The plural is pu·rimʹ, from which the Festival of Purim, also called the Festival of Lots, gets its name.—Es 9:24-26.
In Time of the Apostles. Lots were used by the disciples of Jesus, along with their prayer, to determine who would fill the place of Judas Iscariot as one of the 12 who had witnessed Jesus’ activities and his resurrection; Matthias was chosen. (Ac 1:21-26) The Greek word here is kleʹros and is related to the word kle·ro·no·miʹa, inheritance. Kleʹros is used at Colossians 1:12 and 1 Peter 5:3 in regard to the inheritance, or allotment, that God has given to Christians.
But we do not read of lots being used after Pentecost 33 C.E. for selecting overseers and their assistants or to decide matters of importance. Selection of overseers and their assistants was to be based on the evidence of the fruitage of the holy spirit in their lives (1Ti 3; Tit 1), while other decisions were based on the fulfillment of prophecy, angelic guidance, the principles of God’s Word and Jesus’ teachings, and the direction of holy spirit. (Ac 5:19-21; 13:2, 3; 14:23; 15:15-19, 28) The apostle Paul states: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial . . . for setting things straight.”—2Ti 3:16.