Objects of unknown shape and material used to determine the divine will. Often in the ancient Near East people, especially priests, made difficult and significant decisions by casting lots on the ground or drawing them from a receptacle. Several times Scripture mentions the practice. We do not know exactly what the lots look like. Nor do we know how they were interpreted. We do know that people of the OT and NT believe God (or gods in the case of non-Israelites or non-Christians) influenced the fall or outcome of the lots (Prov 16:33). Thus, casting lots was a way of determining God’s will.
One of the best examples of this use of lots is in Acts. Matthias was chosen to be Juda’s successor by lot (Acts 1:26). The apostles’ prayer immediately before shows the belief that God would express His will through this method. In the OT Saul was chosen as Israel’s first king through the use of lots (1 Sam 10:20-24).
In a similar fashion God communicated knowledge unknown to human beings through lots. Saul called for the casting of lots to determine who sinned during his daylong battle with the Philistines. Specifically, he called for the use of the Urim and Thummim (1 Sam 14:41-42). When Joshua brought people near to the Lord to find the guilty party after the defeat at Al, he may have used lots although the word is not found in the text (Josh 7:10-15).
Lots helped God’s people make a fair decision in complicated situations. God commanded that the promised land be divided by lots (Num 26:52-56). Later, lots established the temple priests’ order of service (1 Chron 24:5-19). This practice continued into Jesus’ day. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the holy place when the angel spoke to him. Zechariah was there because the lot fell to him (Luke 1:8-9). The awful picture of soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments was this kind of “fair play” use of lots (Matt 27:35). Proverbs teaches that the use of lots is one way to put an end to a dispute when decisions are difficult (Prov 18:18).
Lots are memorialized in the Jewish Feast of Purim. Purim, the Akkadian word for “lots,” celebrates the frustration of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews in Persia. Haman had used lots to find the best day for the destruction (Esther 3:7).
Finally, the word “lot” came to refer to one’s portion or circumstance of life. The righteous could confess that God was their lot (Ps 16:5). The lot of those who violated the people of God was terror and annihilation (Isa 17:14).