“You shall describe the land in seven divisions and bring the description here to me; and I will cast lots for you here before the Lord our God.” Joshua 18:6 (NRSV)
Throughout the Great Story we find the practice of “casting lots” which is basically an ancient version of rolling the dice or drawing straws. In today’s story, the division of land between the remaining tribes was determined by casting lots. In the story of Jonah, the sailors figured out Jonah was running from God because they cast lots. Jesus’ executioners cast lots for his robe. The successor to Judas Iscariot among Jesus’ twelve disciples was decided by casting lots.
The practice of making decisions with the drawing of the short straw or a roll of the dice seems ludicrous in our age of reason and science. Nevertheless, the practice reminds me that there are many times in life when we are required to make life decisions and reason does not provide any clarity. The fork in the road beckons us to choose and our Excel spreadsheet of positives and negatives are equally balanced.
We roll the dice in life on many occasions. No matter how much we beg and plead for God to give us a sign, the silence from heaven seems deafening. I have come to understand that there is a mysterious dance between my decisions and divine guidance. It is the eternal tension between free will and predestination. I choose the path only to find along the journey that there was a reason for my choice that I did not understand at the time. God weaves His will in and through our choices to make the tapestry of our lives, our stories.
Today, I sit in my hotel room a thousand miles from my loved ones and stare at a long day with my client. I’ll be honest: It feels like a mountain sitting in front of me and I’m short on mustard seeds. This is part of the journey. We throw the dice. We make choices. We fumble and fret and second guess our choices amidst the daily commute. We trust God to lead us and weave His will and purpose through our daily slog. We press on. We continue on the path despite our doubts and nagging second guesses…“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews, had plotted to crush and destroy them on the date determined by casting lots (the lots were called purim). Esther 9:24 (NLT)
The casting of lots was a common practice in ancient times. It was a form of what we would call today “rolling the dice” and letting the future be determined by fate. It’s a practice from which our modern lottery is based. When Jonah was running from God and his ship was being threatened by the storm, the crew cast lots to determine who was to blame for God being so angry. When Jesus’ disciples needed to pick a replacement for Judas Iscariot, they cast lots to decide between the candidates.
While we still have lotteries as a form of gambling and money-making, our culture long ago moved away from trusting in the practice as way of divining God’s will. Today we put our trust more in reason and discernment than to chance.
Nevertheless, I find in the story of Esther and the festival of Purim a reminder that God is not confined to using only the means of our human design and prescription to work His will. I hear in my head some of my stuffy college professors eschewing the idea that God would use anything other than human reason to divine a proper choice. You can’t deny, however, that God worked through both Haman and Esther’s gambles. God used the casting of Haman’s lot to turn the tables on his heinous motives. Esther rolled the dice when she presented herself to the king without being summoned and God used her bet to work His good and perfect will.
Despite our reliance upon knowledge, intellect, and reason, I find that we all face distinct crossroads at different waypoints of our life’s journey. Two paths diverge from our single one and we must make a choice. Sometimes we make reasoned decisions. Sometimes, we roll the dice. In either case, I believe there is a divine orchestration at work. As it says in Proverbs: “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps” (16:9) and “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall” (16:33). Like me, you may have a hard time wrapping your head completely around how that works exactly. There is a divine mystery to it. Proverbs addresses that too: “The LORD directs our steps, so why try to understand everything along the way?” (20:24).
These were the Levites by their families. They also cast lots, the same as their kindred the sons of Aaron had done, in the presence of David the king, Zadok, Ahimelech, and the leaders of the priestly and Levitical families. The families of the oldest and youngest brothers were treated the same. 1 Chronicles 24:31 (MSG)
“Roll to see who goes first.”
How often have we said that when playing a game with family or friends? It’s a common practice to let fate decide the outcome, but the practice didn’t begin with Milton Bradley or Hasbro. The casting of lots took on different forms in different regions and cultures, but it was analagous to drawing straws, flipping a coin, or rolling a dice.
Journeying through God’s message, we find numerous times in which “lots” were cast to determine all sorts of things. Lots were cast on Jonah’s ship to determine who was responsible for the storm. Lots were cast by Jesus’ disciples to determine who would replace Judas Iscariot among the twelve. In today’s chapter we find lots being cast to determine the order of Levitical duties.
The main idea between casting lots was to take human judgement, favoritism, nepotism, or prejudice out of a decision. By casting lots, you were eliminating human influence on the outcome and giving the results up to God.
I wonder if we sometimes rely too heavily on human reason and judgement in certain decisions. Perhaps the casting of lots is, in some situations, a good practice.