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Biblical Data

The Bible records the practice of casting lots as a means of arriving at decisions on a variety of problems. These may be grouped into two main categories: (a) the selection of one or more members from a group; (b) the division of goods among members of a group. To the first category belong the election of a king (i Sam. 10:20, 21); the election of cult functionaries (i Chron. 24–26); the selection of the "scapegoat" for the atonement ritual (Lev. 16:8–10); the selection of residents for Jerusalem (Neh. 11:1); the allocation of responsibility for supplying the wood for the altar (Neh. 10:35); the identification of a party guilty of some sacrilege (Josh. 7:10–26; i Sam. 14:41ff.; cf. Jonah 1:7); the assignment of a tribe as the first wave of troops in a military campaign (Judg. 20:18; cf. 20:9); the selection of a date for some future action (Esth. 3:7; 9:24; note the use of Akk. pūru, "lot," glossed by Heb. goral, "lot," and the survival of the former in the name of the festival Purim).

The second category involves the distribution of goods, usually booty (Isa. 17:14; Nah. 3:10; Ps. 22:19) or conquered territory. The latter instance accounts for most biblical references to the casting of lots. The division of one's land and its reapportionment to others by lot is cited as a divine punishment in Isaiah 34:17, Joel 4:3, and Obadiah 11. The apportionment of Canaanite territory by lot among the Israelites is related in Numbers 26:52–56; 33:54; 34:13; 36:2, and Joshua 14–19; 21:4–12 (the apportionment of levitical cities, cf. i Chron. 6:39ff.). Distribution of land by the casting of lots is paralleled in both ancient Mesopotamian legal documents and the customs of Palestinian Arabs. Although the Bible provides few details concerning the procedure adopted in the casting of lots, evidence can be supplied from several outside sources (see below; in Talmud and Midrash). It would seem that various objects might serve as lots, the most common ones being of wood and stone (cf. the element giŠ "wood") in the Sumerian giŠ.š ("lot") and the determinative na4 ("stone") describing a lot. A die said to have been cast by the Assyrian official Jaḥali in 833 b.c.e. in the ceremonial selection of the annual eponym is in the form of an inscribed terra-cotta cube (see Hallo). For Hittite resort to the lots, see Kitz.

The technique of casting lots involved throwing lots to the ground and interpreting the results on the basis of a pre-arranged understanding. The element of "throwing" is also evident in the above-mentioned Sumerian term giŠ.Š, "wood which is cast." So, too, the verbs regularly employed with "lot" in both Akkadian and Hebrew denote "to throw, cast down." In the Iliad (3:314ff.) there is preserved a rather detailed description of the procedure: the lots are placed in a helmet and shaken to the ground, the shaker averting his eyes by looking backward. The determination in such cases was based on whose lot fell to the ground first (cf., e.g., Josh. 21:10), each lot having been previously marked to identify its owner (cf. the inscribed names on the lot of the Assyrian eponym and the inscribed shards at Masada). This method is most appropriate in contests, and might be applied to any problem where a choice between participating parties or defined options was involved. In more complex cases, such as the division of land, the area is measured off and the options for partition decided upon (cf., e.g., Josh. 18:4–6), it being understood that specific parcels of land correspond to the lots thrown. It is in this way that words denoting "lot" come to denote that which is decided by the casting of a lot, e.g., a parcel of land, an assigned function, or, more generally, one's destiny.

The biblical notion that the divine will is reflected in the fall of the lots is most clearly expressed in Proverbs 16:33: "The lot is cast from (one's) bosom, but all of its decisions (derive) from the Lord." Divine guidance is also implied by the fact that the lots were cast "before the Lord" (Josh. 18:6; 19:51). Further, the sacral usage of the *Urim and Thummim would also seem to stress the role of lots as a divine means of communication (cf., e.g., i Sam. 14:41, 42). So, too, in Isaiah 34:17 it is the Deity who actually casts the lot determining the inherited portion. The same concept, identically expressed, is attested at Qumran (see the restoration of 1qs 4:26 in J. Licht's Megillat ha-Serakhim (1965), 105). In sharp contrast to this notion is the ancient Mesopotamian idea that the gods, as well as humans, are subject to the fall of the lots.

[Murray Lichtenstein]

In the Second Temple Period

The lot was extensively used during the Second Temple period, and particularly in the Temple itself in order to determine the allocation of duties among the priests. No biblical sanction, however, seems to have been sought for this practice, and, as the following passage shows, it was an arrangement of expediency arrived at through experience. "Originally whoever wished to clear the ashes from the altar did so. If they were many they used to run up the ramp and he that came first within four cubits secured the privilege… It once happened that both reached the decisive point simultaneously; and one of them pushed the other, and he fell and broke his leg. When the bet din saw that danger was involved they ordained that (the privilege of) clearing the altar should be done only by casting lots" (Yoma 2:1–2). The Mishnah goes on to detail the other three lots which were cast for the Temple service. The first covered 13 tasks connected with the sacrifice, from the actual slaughter of the animal to the bringing of the wine oblation, the second for offering the incense, and the third the carrying of the members of the sacrificial animal from the ramp to the altar (ibid. 3–4). The order to cast the lots was given by the overseer (ibid. 4; Tam. 1:2). The Talmud discusses whether or not the priests wore their sacred garments while casting the lots (Yoma 24b). According to the Tosefta (Ta'an. 2:1) the extension of the priestly watches (see *Mishmarot and Ma'amadot) from the four which returned to Zion (Neh. 9:5; 11:10) to the 24 in the Second Temple was also decided by lot.

Whereas there is nothing in the Bible regarding the manner in which the lots were cast (see above) the Talmud gives details. The urn (Heb. kalpei; Gr. κάλπη) in which the lots were placed for choosing the scapegoat was originally of boxwood (eshkero'a), but Ben Gamala made one of gold (Yoma 3:9). The urn was shaken and the two lots were taken, one in each hand. If the one bearing the inscription "For the Lord" came up in the right hand, it was regarded as a good omen (4:1). The lot could be made of any material, e.g., olive wood, walnut wood, or boxwood (Yoma 37a). According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 4:1, 41b), they were made of black and white pebbles. The above, however, refers to the biblically ordained throwing of lots for the scapegoat. For other lotteries it would appear that pieces of paper, or shards, such as those found at Masada (see below), were used. They are referred to as pitka'ot (Gr. πιττάκιον).

The term "lot" at Qumran is used for both the heavenly lottery or allotment, which is already apportioned by God (e.g., 1qs 2:2), as well as the paraphernalia used for a lottery on earth for casting lots. At Qumran when the lot was cast under the supervision of a priest, its outcome was considered to be predetermined by divine appointment. cd 14:3–8 with 4q279 5:2–6 indicates that the term "lot" was also used for each of the four categories of membership within the community: Priests, Levites, Israelites, and Proselytes. Order within those categories was determined by pedigree, spirit, and casting lots. In this one's "lot" may be understood as one's divinely appointed station or position (e.g., 1qs 1:10; 2:23). The War Scroll (1qm) also utilizes the term for categories of angels. Similarly, but antithetically, the community's enemies were said to be of the "lot of Belial" (1qs 2:5; 1qm 1:5).

It is therefore not surprising that lots should be found during the excavations of Khirbet Qumran. Their form, however, differed from those found at Masada. The lots were smoothed balls of clay measuring 25 ± 5 mm in diameter with partially pierced holes arranged over the surface ranging in numerical value from 1 to 27. At least 59 lots were discovered at Qumran during the course of R. de Vaux's excavations. De Vaux recorded these according to item and locus number as "boulée piercée incompletes" and noted the size and number of holes on each. De Vaux, without understanding the actual use and significance of the items, chose to provide the simplest description of them (as he also did in the case of the sundial which he listed as "disque de calcaire" (khq909)). The pam photographs of seven of these have been published in The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche.

Josephus gives a number of historical incidents in which choice was made by lot. According to his own, suspect, account, he saved himself from death at Jotapata by arranging that the last ten leaders of the besieged city, of whom he was one, should cast lots, the second one to draw the lot putting to death the previous one, and so on, the last one left having to immolate himself. When he was left with the last other survivor, he persuaded him to abandon the plan (Wars, 3:387–91). A similar system was employed for the suicide of the last ten defenders of Masada. Ten were chosen by lot to be the executioners of the defenders, and then the ten drew lots among themselves to determine who should slay the remaining nine, the last then committing suicide (ibid., 7:396ff.). A series of ostraca bearing the names of men found at Masada have been connected by Yadin with this episode. Josephus also states that the Zealots, during the last days of the Temple, in order to mock at the aristocratic families from whom the high priest was usually selected, elected *Phinehas b. Samuel by lot (ibid., 4:155).

In the New Testament Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) was chosen by lot (kleros) to offer the incense in the Temple (Luke 1:8–9). The disciples of Jesus determined who would replace Judas Iscariot by casting lots (Acts 1:26). The term is also used for "lot of the saints" (Acts 26:18; i Pet. 5:3) which may be applied to categories of angels (Col. 1:12). "Lot" can also mean "appointed position" in Acts 1:17 and 8:21. The term was also used in the Gospels for the casting of dice by Roman soldiers who competed for Jesus' garments (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24).

The aggadah extends the use of the lot to many instances of biblical history. The fact that although Eldad and Medad were "of them that were recorded" but they remained in the camp (Num. 11:26) is explained by stating that Moses chose the 70 elders mentioned in the context by placing 72 slips in an urn; on 70 of them the word "elder" was written, while two were blank, and six were selected from each tribe (Sanh. 17a). A similar lot was drawn to select the 22,000 firstborn (ibid.). The Midrash also adds that Jacob's sons drew lots to decide who was to bring the bloodstained coat of Joseph to Jacob (Gen. R. 84:8). Details are given of the manner in which the territory of Israel was divided among the tribes (bb 122a), and that brothers can divide by lot an estate bequeathed to them is laid down as the law (bb 106b).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz /

Stephen Pfann (2nd ed.)]

Post-Talmudic Times

According to Jewish thought a decision arrived at by lot is not regarded as the result of blind choice. Only once is an objection taken to deciding matters by lot and, peculiarly enough, it has been included in the Shulḥan Arukh. The tosafists apparently had a reading to the Sifrei Deuteronomy 18:13: "From what do we learn that it is forbidden to enquire by casting lots? Since the Bible says Thou shalt be wholehearted with the Lord thy God" (see Tos. Shab. 156a). The statement does not occur in the present editions of the Sifrei, which give an entirely different deduction from this verse (in Pes. 113b the doctrine that "one should not enquire of the Chaldeans" is deduced from this verse, a reading which is supported by the context in which it occurs). Either the tosafot had a different reading, or, as appears probable, the deduction is based upon I Samuel 14:41, where the word tammim ("wholehearted" in Deut. 18:13) is taken to mean "lots" (see 14:42). Whatever the case may be, this statement has been incorporated in the Shulhan Arukh (yd 179:1) in the laws against witchcraft. It is, however, an isolated statement; a tolerant and even positive view has been taken throughout the ages with regard to lotteries (but see *Gambling). A possible reflection of this is seen in the fact that although games of chance and gambling are not permitted in the State of Israel, the National Lottery is sponsored by the government and the proceeds of the weekly Mifal ha-Payis (payis is the talmudic word for lottery) are designated for hospitals and schools.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


S. Bergheim, in: pefqs (1894), 194; A. Bea, in: Biblica, 21 (1940), 198–9; (cad i/j), 198–202, s.v.isqu; A.L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), 99–100; Y. Yadin, Masada (1966), 201. add. bibliography: W. Hallo, in: ba, 46 (1983), 19–26, with illustrations of lots; W. Horowitz and V. Hurowitz, in: janes, 21 (1992), 95–115; A. Kitz, in: jbl, 116 (1997), 401–10; A Berlin, jps Torah Commentary Esther (2001), 38. second temple period: S. Pfann, "The Essene Yearly Renewal Ceremony and the Baptism of Repentance," in: Proceedings of the Provo Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls, July 1996 (1998), 351–52; E. Tov with S. Pfann, The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche: A Comprehensive Facsimile Edition of the Texts from the Judean Desert, (19952). See pam 40.236 (fiche 4), 42.682 (fiche 55), and 42.869 (fiche 59).

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