What does "casting lots" mean?
Discerning God's will for a choice
In some cases, lots appear to be a means of discerning God’s will for a choice. An example would be the Urim and Thummim (e.g. Num.27.21; Deut; 33.8). I wonder if in some cases it is used when both parties match the requirements of the choice (cf. Prov. l8.18). In looking at a passage, you could ask yourself which of these two interpretations fits best.
Making a decision by discerning God's will
The expression refers to making a decision by discerning God's will. A variety of methods might have been used for the "lottery," just like today we might flip a coin, draw straws, or throw dice. The Bible does not speculate on the exact methods used in places like Leviticus 16:8-10 and Acts 1:26, but the assumption in those circumstances (especially in Acts 1) is that God is communicating through the outcome.
Discerning God's decision in a particular circumstance
While we don’t know exactly what objects were used, casting lots was a way of discerning God’s decision in a particular circumstance. It was akin to rolling dice (Proverbs 16:33 says they were cast into the lap) and believing that the results of a certain roll were an indication of God’s decision. Whether that was actually something God participated in is anyone’s guess, but it was believed and practiced.
This article is pretty good in describing it and listing the places in the Bible where it occurs: https://carm.org/what-casting-lots-in-the-bible. There are many more Old Testament references to it than there are references in the New Testament, so it’s likely that the practice wasn’t used in any formal way in the early church.
Rev. Anne Robertson - Executive Director - Massachusetts Bible Society
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