Both Luke and Acts begin with the casting or taking of lots. In Luke 1:9, the priest Zacharias is selected by lot to burn incense at the veil of the temple, where the angel Gabriel appears to him. His selection by lot had been done “according to the custom of the priest’s office” — that is, in the normal way for a priest to be assigned a specific duty in the temple. Likewise, the early disciple Matthias was chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot as an apostle of Jesus:
“And (the apostles) appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias (as candidates). And (the apostles) prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:21-26).
What does it mean to cast lots?
The practice described in the book of Acts of “casting,” “giving” or “taking” lots as a means to select a new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot seems puzzling to modern Christians because moderns tend to view casting lots as a matter of mere random chance, almost like gambling.
In the ancient world, however, casting lots was universally viewed as a form of divination by which the will of God was revealed. The book of Proverbs assures us that “the lot is cast ('goral') into the lap (of the diviner); but the decision ('mishpat') is from the Lord” (16:33). That is to say, the result of the casting of lots is controlled or manipulated by God so that his will is manifest through the lot-taking.
References to casting lots in the Bible
The exact process by which lots were cast in ancient Israel is not always clear; there were probably several different methods. One way was by using different colored or marked stones, producing binary outcomes — yes or no, good or bad, selected or rejected. Pieces of broken pottery (“ostraca”) could have names or marks written on them as well, thereby offering a wider array of possible outcomes. (Incidentally, our verb “to ostracize” comes from the practice — attested, for example, in classical Athens — of using ostraca in votes to determine who should be expelled from the city.) The conquered lands of Canaan were divided among the Israelites by lot (Joshua 18-19; Ezekiel 45:1, 47:22; Acts 13:19). The sin of Jonah was determined to be the source of the storm threatening the ship by casting lots (Jonah 1:7).
Casting lots was intimately connected with Israelite temple practice and with assigning temple duties. The high priest was selected by lots at the time of David (1 Chronicles 24:31); the selection of Matthias as an apostle by casting lots (Acts 1:26) is undoubtedly based on this ancient temple practice — perhaps implying Matthias’ high priestly status as well. Other specific duties to be performed by priestly families were also assigned by lot (1 Chronicles 25:8, 26:13-16; Nehemiah 10:34), which forms the background for the selection of Zacharias to tend the incense altar in Luke 1:9. In Leviticus 16:8-10, the high priest selected the scapegoat for the Day of Atonement sacrifice by lot.
The Urim and Thummim are considered by many scholars to have been a type of lot-taking. The high priest was to carry the Urim and Thummim in a pouch or pocket on his breastplate (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8) to manifest the “judgment” or decision (“mishpat”) of the Lord. The word “mishpat” (“judgment/decision”) here is the same word used in Proverbs 16:33 to refer to the result of lot-casting mentioned above. The lot-taking for the selection of Matthias as an apostle may thus be related to the Urim and Thummim practice in some way. The word “Urim” means “lights” in Hebrew, leading some scholars to believe that the Urim and Thummim were some type of reflective or semi-transparent crystal, gem or rock.
What were casting lots in ancient Israel?
Thus, in the ancient Israelite context, the casting of lots for the selection of a new apostle should be understood against two different backgrounds: the selection of priesthood leaders by lots for service in the Israelite temple, and obtaining God’s will through the use of the Urim and Thummim. Ancient Jews and Christians believed that, when invoked with proper purpose, method and authority, lot-taking was a mechanism for determining the will of God.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.