Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Not a Lot on Lots

From the April 2013 E-Block.
A reader has requested a look at the Biblical subject of the "casting of lots". As it happens, this is one of those topics were we have little information to work with, but here's what I have gathered from a series of OT and NT commentaries. As an interesting note of trivia, lots are most often mentioned in the Bible in the book of Joshua, which accounts for a third of all OT references.

What were "lots"? The exact nature of these items is particularly uncertain. The best guess seems to be that they were small rocks with "dark" and "light" sides. Normally two were used, and results were gauged as follows:
  • Two dark face up -- no
  • Two light face up -- yes
  • One of each face up -- recast

  • What were lots used for? Lots were seen as an impartial and unbiased way to determine the will of God. I gather that no one had figured a way to "load" lots the way modern dice can be loaded. If they were rocks, then it would have required boring or drilling to load them, and that would be rather obvious to see.

    So, this wasn't just chance? No. Even among pagans, who used lots (Jonah 1:7), it was assumed that the gods controlled the outcome. Prov. 16:33 makes this belief clear: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord."

    But isn't this like gambling? No. As I said in an article on this some years ago:

    Practically speaking, the Bible has nothing to say about gambling as we know it, and the only real, practical example of it is that of Roman soldiers gambling for Jesus' robe. But even then there would be a sea of difference between how we regard gambling and how the ancients would have regarded it.

    The modern gambler is a person who -- depending upon his poison -- works with a mix of what is generally thought to be random chance and personal gaming skill. Obviously, the level of each varies from effort to effort; the roulette wheel takes no skill at all, while poker is more of a mix of skill levels.

    The chance aspect, however, is generally worked out under the assumption that the result could come out any particular way, due to "luck" or "chance", as a nebulous non-force that does the bidding.

    Pious gamblers may go as far to claim that God influenced things to make them win (but of course, not to make them or the others lose). And such persons would actually be far closer to an ancient view than a modern one. As Pilch and Malina note in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values [79ff], the ancients as a whole believed in the fixed fate or fortune of each person.

    Gambling would then not be a matter of throwing things to chance, but of determining the will of the gods (and in Israel's case, God). This can be seen in that the drawing of lots was used to determine tribal land apportionments (Num. 26:55-56; Josh. 14-21).

    One may note at once, beyond the difference in view, that the Israelite practice of drawing lots for land was far from the intent found in modern gambling. It was not a game in which one person won out while everyone else went home with far less, or wearing a barrel. Each participant "won" something of equitable value (i.e., like going to Las Vegas and every slot machine returning a nickel for every nickel put in). The many places where lots are cast in the Bible were all done as a way of quickly and easily determining God's will. No one was risking money or livelihood for the gain of others. Actually, the ancients, as a whole, were too poor to take such risks, and of course currency was not a primary item of trade for most of them.

    Some would add that gambling is contrary to the Bible because it puts faith in chance and fate rather than in the providence of God. I would prefer to appeal to the general Biblical principle of responsible stewardship to argue against gambling, but for our purposes, we would only point out that Bible "gambling" was not the limited-sum and uncontrolled game that modern gambling generally is.

    I am reminded of a joke a large local church once played on the pastor while he was on vacation, and shortly after the lottery had started in Florida. The church staff had the local paper print a mock-up with a story saying that while the pastor had been gone, the church had used budget money to buy every possible lottery ticket number combination, in order to win a large prize that was then being given. The mock story said that they did not view it as gambling, because they knew they would win no matter what. The effect is funny, but it does suggest a relevant truth: Gambling is only gambling when someone loses while they are trying to "take advantage" of the non-force of chance.

    No doubt people used lots or similar devices for gambling as well --- or eventually did so. But that's not how the Bible sees their use.

    So, can we use lots now? That wouldn't be a good idea unless you live in a theocracy under God's covenant. Use of lots was primarily reserved for the Levitical priests and in the NT for the apostles.

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