Question: In the early part of the Book of Mormon and in the Bible there are references to making key decision by the “casting of lots.” I cannot find out what “lots” actually were and how they were “cast.” Can you help?
Answer: Thanks for the good question. The term “lot” in English is a little vague, referring only to the result of an action, in effect (as in the saying “one’s lot in life,” meaning something like “fate”). The Greek word in the New Testament is kléros, which can either refer to a physical object or to an abstract concept. The abstract concept is “inheritance” as in “one’s lot, allowance,” and the physical object is any object used in the magical determination of one’s allowance in any sense, so it can refer to dice or sticks or any other instrument of a game of chance, as we would see it today.
In German, a language closely related to English, the word is “Los” and this is also used in a more abstract sense, especially in a very common idiom, “Was ist los?” meaning, “what’s going on?” or “what’s the matter?” Here the word stands in for the concept of “situation” or “status.”
There is a fancy name for this kind of literary device: synecdoche (pronounced sin-EK-duh-key), which is when a concrete object stands in for an abstract concept. Americans may speak of “fighting for the flag” when what they really mean is fighting for their country. In British Commonwealth countries, our laws refer to the “Crown” when they really mean the state or the government acting on behalf of the state.
The word “lot” is used much like this: it can refer to dice or some other toy of chance, as when the Roman soldiers divided Christ’s personal clothing (a right they had under Roman custom), or it can refer to a device used to aid divination, either inspired or not. In the references in the Old Testament it’s clear from the context that pagan magic is referred to sometimes, and sometimes the “lot” used may have been the Urim and Thummim and therefore, one presumes, divinely sanctioned and inspired. And sometimes, of course, it can refer to an abstract concept. In the latter case, toys of chance didn’t necessarily–in fact, almost certainly didn’t–play a role. When Matthias was “chosen by lot” in Acts 1, we don’t know the actual mechanism used, but the usual practice was to write the name or symbol of your chosen candidate onto a potsherd (piece of broken pottery) and put it into a basket or pot. Someone would either count the potsherds just like we count ballots today, or draw out a potsherd and read what was on it.
In fact, one can see the parallel, and the linguistic confusion, by putting this into modern language: when we say that someone was “chosen by ballot” do we speculate about whether the pieces of paper (the ballot) were Tarot cards or some other such thing? The context tells us what is meant.
Some etymology of the word “kléros” might be interesting. It’s cognate (related to) the Latin word from which we get the word “clergy”, which means those who have been set apart, or have a special lot in life. The Greek word seems to come from proto-Indo European, the ancestor language of both Greek and English, along with most languages of Europe and northern India, “kle,” which meant to cut or divide. Think of cutting up a pie to apportion the pieces, and you’ll get the sense of the word. Here’s an excerpt from the Anchor Bible commentary on the subject, which discusses the Hebrew etymology:
Acts 1:26 ‘They cast lots for them.’ Lit., “they gave lots to (or for) them,” reading the dative ‘autois’ as in Mss Aleph, A, B,C, D1, 33, 81, etc.; but MSS D*, E, Psi, etc., read rather the genitive ‘autón’, “of them,” an inconsequential variant. The dative is not, however, an indirect object, but a dative of advantage; the whole expression is probably a Hebraism (= ‘natenu goralot’, as in Lev 16:8). See G. Lohfink, “Der Losvorgang in Apg 1, 26,” BZ 19 (1975): 247-49.
Since practices of superstition and magic were forbidden to Israel (Deut 18:9-14), only the priestly Urim and Thummim could be used to ascertain an oracular decision (Exod 28:30; Lev 27:21; cf. 1 Sam 14:41). The word ‘kléros’, which has a broad basic meaning, “share, lot, portion,” expresses a variety of nuances in the Greek OT. It can translate Hebrew ‘nahalah,’ “inheritance, heritage, possession” (Num 16:14; 18:21; Isa 57:6) or Hebrew ‘goral,’ “lot” (Lev 16:8-10). It is being used here in the latter sense. Significantly, it is the means chosen by the early community to ascertain God’s will in this matter, since not a democratic election but a divine choice is involved. Cf. Prov 16:33 [*]
Personally, I don’t necessarily agree that voting wasn’t involved, since we know that voting was and is to this day the way popes have been determined, but it’s quite possible it wasn’t. After all, even today apostolic callings aren’t extended based upon democratic principles, but by divine calling. So whether it’s the apostles today getting together and voting unanimously or whether it was perhaps done by drawing a potsherd out of a basket, in both cases we believe God’s will was made manifest.
More information on lots as used at Masada can be found in Eric D. Huntsman, “And They Cast Lots: Divination, Democracy, and Josephus,” BYU Studies 36/3 (1996-97): 365-377. This is a part of the special issue on Masada and the World of the New Testament.
According to Josephus, “After the men had chosen by lot ten of their number who would be their butchers, and when they had laid down beside and thrown their arms around their wives and children who lay waiting, they offered themselves up for the slaughter.” [Jewish War 7.395]
Yigael Yadin, the excavator of Masada, found ostracae or potsherds in room 113, each with a different name written on it, including the name of Eleazer ben Yair, the leader of a Zealot group called the Sicarii. Yadin believed that these lots were the very ones used in that final desperate selection. Huntsman examines the evidence and concludes that there were suicides and lots were used, but that Josephus had embellished the story. One of the problems is that Josephus had been involved in just such a situation himself. During the early stages of the Jewish War, Josephus and 40 others found themselves holed up against the Romans at a cave near the fortress of Jotapata. They resolved that the only way out was mass suicide. They decided to draw lots to determine the order of their deaths: the drawer of the first lot was to be killed by the drawer of the second, who was to be killed by the drawer of the third, etc. In theory, the use of lots made the process fair and random.
But Josephus managed to draw the last lot, and when he and the second to the last participant were left, they decided not to follow through on their suicide pact and surrendered to the Romans rather than die at their own hands. This, of course, led to the suspicion that Josephus had somehow “fixed” the lots, which was apparently also a common practice in ancient (as well as modern) times. In this dispensation, lots are used during LDS disciplinary councils to select high councilors who will speak for and against the accused. The exact mechanism in this case is to write the names of members of the stake high council on pieces of paper, and then drawing the names out of a hat or box.