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The Die is Cast

by Tim O'Hearn

The holiday of Purim (March 10 in 2009) is named after the practice of casting lots. “And in the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar.” (Esth 3:7) This was the method by which the enemy of the Jewish people chose on what day he wanted his nation to commit genocide. While the casting of lots was not an unusual practice, it may be significant that Haman chose this method of selection.

Scholars are in disagreement about the exact method of casting lots. Some say it used multi-sided objects, similar to throwing dice. Others suggest that the lot was simply a two-sided object (like flipping a coin) that gave a yes/no answer. Regardless, in the Bible the lot was often used to choose between multiple options. An example would be the selection of Saul as king (1 Sam 10:20-21). They cast lots, multiple times. The first lot chose between the twelve tribes. The next lot chose the clan, and a subsequent lot chose the family. Finally the lot chose the individual. However it was done, casting lots could choose between at least twelve choices at one time.

An even more common use of the lot happened on Yom Kippur. Two goats were selected, one for the Lord and one as the scapegoat. The cohen gadol (High Priest) would cast lots to determine which of the two would be the sacrifice and which the scapegoat. (Lev 16:8-10) Interestingly, two lots were cast, even though it seems one would have been sufficient; once one is picked the other is obviously the alternate choice.

Other decisions were made by lot: the division of the land after Joshua led the conquest (Num 26:55, Josh 18:10, 19:51); the order of service for the priests (1 Chron 24); even guilt or innocence. When Achan stole some goods from Jericho, casting lots detected his guilt. (Josh 7:14-18) The sailors with whom Jonah had purchased passage cast lots to determine that he was the cause of the storm they were experiencing. (Jon 1:7)

When Haman had the lots cast before him to choose between months and days he was following a time-honored and God-approved tradition among the Jews. Had he known the writings of Solomon he might have been more careful about doing so. “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD.” (Prov 16:33) At least where the Jews were concerned, the casting of lots always worked out in their favor. And so it was in Haman’s case.

Haman cast the lots, or had them cast, in the first month of the year. There was a one in four chance that the lot would have come up in the first quarter of the year, which would have been to his advantage. Instead it selected the twelfth month, almost a whole year away. This gave the Jewish people the advantage. It allowed the queen (whom Haman was unaware was a Jewess) time to appeal the decree to execute all the Jews. It gave the Jewish people time to arm themselves in defense. It could be mere chance that the lot selected the least opportune time for Haman’s plans to be carried out. But as the wise man said, when you cast the lot be careful. You might just end up doing what God wants you to do.