Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Casting Lots: Revelatory Divination

And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen...And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:24, 26)

This concept of casting lots at times bothers today's Latter-day Saints. Attempts are often made to reconcile the "giving forth of lots" with modern apostolic practices. However, this anachronistic approach to the scriptures distorts the original setting and clouds proper understanding. Elder Neal A. Maxwell said it best: "Only by searching the scriptures, not using them occasionally as quote books, can we begin to understand the implications as well as the declarations of the gospel." New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III explains this strange event in Acts 1 as follows:

This process [i.e. casting lots] for determining God's will was traditional in Judaism (cf. Lev. 16:8; Num. 26:55; Jon. 1:7-8; 1QS 5:3, 6:16), and there is probably no implied criticism of it by Luke, though scholars have often contrasted this story with those which follow Pentecost where the guidance of the Spirit is relied upon. Clearly, Luke thinks the choice here (and so presumably the method) valid for its day - the disciples could not be criticized for not relying on a source of power and discernment they had not yet received. The process was likely the same as we see in 1 Chron. 26:13-14 - stones in some way marked to distinguish them were placed in a container or jar and shaken until one came out, in this case the one that represented Matthias.[1]

What exactly is a lot? "A lot is an object used as a counter in determining a question by chance. To select by lot may include rolling dice or picking straws and the like. The prevailing wisdom was that "the lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord's alone" (Prov 16:33). The point is that God was behind the apparent randomness of the lot. For example, Saul was chosen the first king of mythical Israel by lot (1 Sam 14:41-42: the devices for casting lots here are called Urim and Thummim)."[2]

Cultural practices and influences should be explored, not ignored.[3]


1. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 125-126.

2. Bruce J. Malina, John J. Pirch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 26-27. It should be noted that some scholars disagree with the simplistic comparison of the Urim and Thummim to casting lots. TB Yoma 21b states that the Urim and Thummim along with the spirit of prophecy that accompanied them were missing from the Second Temple. The description of the Urim and Thummim found within the biblical texts includes them being "attached to the high priest’s breastplate which hung from his ephod-apron by gemstone buttons on his shoulders (Exodus 28:28-30; Lev. 8:8). With the urim and thummim attached, the breastplate becomes the breastplate of judgment...and the entire ephod becomes a method for accessing the divine will, a method of prophecy (Num. 27:18-21). These biblical sections are customarily assigned to P, which is usually considered second temple. The urim and thummim appear more frequently in the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch than they do in the MT. RofĂ© suggests therefore that several references to them have been expunged from the MT." (Lisbeth S. Fried, "Did the Second Temple High Priests Possess the Urim and Thummim?" The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 7:3, 2007: 4-5)

3. Cultural exploration and research within the biblical writings might help ease one's discoveries of the folk-magicMasonic and other 19th century influences on the early saints and their revelations.


  1. You beat me to it. Dang.

    Thanks for bringing this up, though. I think there are many ancient rites and practices that we really don't understand.

    It seems quite commonplace to try to frame the ancient in terms of the modern, and I've seen that cause confusion a great many times. This seems especially true with attempts to interpret the Bible with a literal, 20th/21st Century interpretation. To me, it seems foolish, but it's a common practice amongst Christians of all stripes, even us as Latter-day Saints.

    FAIR had an article that discussed the differences between "magic" and "priesthood," and what the presenter referred to as "the Big and Little Traditions." It can be found here:

    It's titled, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?" and it nicely examines subjects that modern LDS folk find... unpleasant... and yet definitely seem to have more validity (and merit) than we assign.

    It's a good examination of our prevailing paradigms, and though it deals with a subject that's usually the stuff of Anti-Mormon pamphlets, it explains it in a way that is clearly *not* speaking against the prophet Joseph or the Church.

    It only calls into question our modern insistence on a certain interpretation.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Stan. I do not find anything I disagree with. And thank you for the FAIR link. For those who haven't read it, it is an excellent presentation.

  3. Thanks. But I already learned everything I need to know from Bro. R. lol