Casting of lots

It is tempting to assume that the people of Biblical times were the scientifically enlightened critical thinkers we like to think of ourselves as being.  This makes it a lot easier to defend the contents of the Bible. For instance, if those who witnessed God’s miracles were critical, rational thinkers, and were still convinced by what they saw, then it seems more likely that the miracles were real. This is not a particularly strong argument, but it’s certainly something to grab onto. Is it valid, though?

I would argue that we grossly misidentify the mindset of people from that time. Skepticism was not a burgeoning practice in the ancient Middle East, and people were generally superstitious. In a recent post, I mentioned how, in New Testament times, large groups of people could be duped by what they believed was sorcery and magic, not unlike the enormous followings of obvious charlatans like Sathya Sai Baba in today’s India.

Another example, found in several places in the Old Testament, is the practice of divination, particularly by the casting of lots. This practice involved throwing a set of objects (such as sticks or stones) to the ground and interpreting in their arrangement the will of God. With this issue, as with many, the Bible sends contradictory messages. Divination is explicitly forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:10-12:

There shall not be found among you any one who maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or who useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all who do these things are an abomination unto the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

However, the use of divination by casting of lots is mentioned several times elsewhere in the Old Testament. The Wikipedia page on cleromancy neatly outlines the best examples:

In the Hebrew Bible, there are at least four cases where casting lots was invoked as a means of determining God’s mind:

1. In the Book of Joshua 7:11-22, God commands that a thief be found by casting lots, first among the tribes of Israel, then among the families of that tribe, etc. Achan, the person identified in this way, confesses his guilt, and shows where he has buried the loot.

2. In the First book of Samuel 10:17-24, the people of Israel demand God to set a king over them, and God decrees a king to be found by a procedure similar to the above, leading to the selection of king Saul.

3. Also 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 who eats food until its evening and I am avenged on my enemies”.

4. In the Book of Jonah 1:7, casting of lots is used to determine that Jonah was the cause of the storm. He was subsequently cast overboard, and the storm dissipated.

Other places in the Hebrew Bible relevant to divination:

1. 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.

2. Book of Leviticus 16:7-10: On the Day of Atonement lots are cast over two goats to determine which will be the sacrifice and which will be the Scapegoat.

3. 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 is a remembrance of the subsequent chain of events.

It is important to note, as the Wikipedia page does, that if not interpreted correctly, Hebrew texts could be erroneously identified as describing divination when they are actually describing the more mundane process of allotting portions of some item among a group of people. The above examples appear to be clear of such ambiguity.

Two objects named in the Old Testament as the Urim and Thummim, are thought by scholars to have been instrumental in divination. The Bible has no clear physical description of these objects, saying only that they were kept within the breast plate of the high priest. This may have allowed the priest to select one blind, thereby showing that the result of the divination was truly God’s will, not his own.

We thus see a culture that thinks nothing of determining the will of God through practices that today are rightly considered primitive, not to mention bogus. If these people believed that the random arrangement of cast lots revealed the will of God, how critical of apparent miracle events can we expect them to have been?

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