This article explains our history and current understanding surrounding the Christian practice of "casting lots." It started in the late 1990s as a game. It grew into a indispensable part of our regular walk with Jesus.
We originally called this "Pick-a-Number," since that is what everyone playing the game was doing. Of course they still are picking numbers, but the net effect is that the group is "casting lots" in the Biblical sense of the term. The outcome of the process is the result of the lot.
Before we get into the complete sense of what is going on, let's go back to the beginning, and think of it as a game.
What follows here are the original rules, which still work if the only Bible available to the group is a standard, printed, paper Bible. In the middle of 2010 the rules were modified some to work better with some unusual Bibles we had at the time which were formatted for notebook size pages. The modified rules, which will be covered below, also work much better with electronic Bibles. But, lets start this story at the beginning with the original rules:
The Original Rules of the Pick-A-Number Game
This game has a precise set of rules. Before explaining game strategy, the simple rules are in order.
Calling the Game Pick-A-Number is always "called" by someone. This is the person who’s Bible will be used to play the game. The caller is responsible for running the game until it is finished. Someone should not ask the group to play unless they themselves are willing to host the game.
Picking Numbers Everyone in the group around the caller supplies a number for the game. This should be the first number that comes to mind after the game is called. Occasionally someone will know that the game is coming and will have been given a number earlier than it is called. This is perfectly acceptable to use a number given in prayer, or prophetically, earlier in time.
Everyone has a number Everyone present when the game is called contributes a number. For young children they should be asked to pick a number and say whatever comes to mind first. For infants or people incapacitated in some way they are arbitrarily assigned the number 1. This includes, for example, people who are asleep when the game is called.
Finding the Page The numbers given by everyone present are added up. The total number is considered to be a page number from the Bible of the person who called the game. The person who called the game goes and looks up that page in their Bible.
Handling Big Numbers If the number is larger than the total number of pages in the caller’s Bible, the number wraps back to the beginning and continues. Typically this means subtracting the page number of the last page of the Book of Revelation from the total earlier computed. This allows page 1, typically Genesis 1:1, as a target for the game, even when there is more than 1 person playing the game. It is perfectly fine for the number to wrap several times before a final page is found.
Finding Scripture The number selected by the team will produce a particular page. The caller turns to that page. The first chapter that starts on that page is the scripture that starts the game. If there is no chapter on the page, the scripture is the first section break on the page. If no section break then it is the first full verse that starts on the page. This is rare. Usually the scripture is the chapter that starts on the page. Note: The rule changes in 2010, in part, eliminate the subjectivity of this rule and make the process of finding the exact scripture much easier.
Reading Scripture The person who called the game reads the indicated chapter to the rest of the people present. Depending on the context of the game, i.e.: why it was called, that person or else the group, must then explain what the scripture means.
The Apostle Paul, started out unsaved and studied the Bible under Gamaliel.  This was the equivalent in his day of having gone to Bible College. Under Gamaliel’s teaching Paul learned the letter of the Law, he learned the stories that made up the canon of scripture.
Paul eventually had his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus and as a result had to go learn everything all over again. This time he had to learn from Jesus how to apply scripture in a preaching situation to an audience under Jesus’ leading through the Holy Spirit.
This cannot be learned in school. It can only be learned from Jesus’ directly. The following is one of Paul’s accounts of this process:
13For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.
18Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:13-18 NIV
13For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: 14And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. 15But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, 16To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: 17Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. 18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:13-18 KJV
In Paul’s case it was three years in Arabia and Damascus when he was transformed by Jesus into a preacher. He took the base knowledge of the Scriptures and could now apply them under the leading of the Spirit to particular situations.
Pick-a-Number, as a game is a training exercise for people who have substantially moved through there "Gamaliel" level of training. Because the game picks a Scripture from somewhere in the entire canon of the Bible, the person calling the game should know the entire Bible well enough to be able to at least explain any passage.
People who have not themselves at least read the Bible cover-to-cover are ill prepared for the public exposition of the entire Bible, which is what this game demands. Indeed, one time through is still woefully short of the level of understanding needed to play this game well.
I do occasionally teach this game to new believers so they can have some fun while they are reading the Bible for the first time. It gives an important taste as to what is coming later in their spiritual development. In this sort of situation, though, it should be thought of more as a game than as the full practice of casting lots.
I occasionally get objections about the game. The thought that a Bible Study could be taken to any scripture, instead of, say, the New Testament alone, is often anathema to certain Christian sects. This is also the objection raised, it turns out, by Bible study and small group leaders who don’t know their own Bible and are rightfully afraid to play. The foundation scripture, that explains what this game is doing is supplied as part of Paul’s writing to Timothy.
16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. S. Timothy 3:16-17 NIV
16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. S. Timothy 3:16-17 KJV
Here Paul explains to Timothy why he needs to learn the entire Scriptures. It will cause Timothy to be complete, and thoroughly equipped for every situation that can come along.
The thought here is that the entirety of the Bible is needed in order to fully cope with every situation in life that occurs now. Every situation that can be encountered by people is every situation recorded in the entire Bible. If you don’t know the entire Bible then you are not yet equipped for dealing with life in the world around.
The use of "Study Bibles" has some important issues relative to how this works. Let me explain through my own growth.
When I was first saved a Lutheran friend of mine gave me a simple NIV translation of the Bible bound in hardback. Several years later I joined a small group Bible study and everyone there had a big, faux-leather bound, NIV study Bible. I wanted one just like them and went out and spent perhaps $70 on a green one. (Back when $70 was a lot of money.)
For several years I was a part of this group and we used these big, faux-leather bound, NIV Study Bibles in all of our reading and study together. It was a good experience and I learned a lot during that time.
At some point I was called out of that group. Jesus had other places for me to go. Soon after I was in prayer and reading my big, faux-leather bound, NIV Study Bible when I was hit with the Holy Spirit. Done!
I was done with that big, faux-leather bound, NIV Study Bible. It hit as strongly as any message I’d received to that point. I could not use that Bible for even another day. Later that very day I set out and found a slim line NIV in a blue cover. This one only had the translator’s notes, otherwise it was pure Bible text and nothing else.
At the time I switched Bibles because I was doing what I was told, not because I knew why, though I quickly realized the footnotes were a heavy distraction. I could read far more text far faster without the clutter provided by the footnotes.
I soon ran into someone else who had been told to drop his Study Bible in favor of simple text. In his case he was given a complete explanation. He was told that the notes in the Bible were given to someone else at a different time and that Jesus would explain his text himself now. My friend did not need revelation given for someone else, so he was to drop the Study Bible.
Years later a second friend who operates strongly in the prophetic explained her own experience of switching away from a Study Bible in favor of a simple bible. It was the same lesson: Jesus would now reveal his word himself. She didn’t need Jesus’ revelation to someone else at an earlier time. She too switched to a simple text.
I finally saw the biggest problem with big, faux-leather bound, NIV Study Bibles, when I was casting lots with a group. Someone used one of those Bibles, and to my shock, they could not make the intellectual distinction between the original inspired text of the Bible, and the notes added to the text by an un-inspired modern author sometime in the past 50 years.
It is more important that someone learn to discern on their own what Jesus has in a particular passage than it is to know what is conventionally understood about that passage.
Indeed, the notes in Study Bibles are themselves "traditions of men" something that Jesus warned against. Though they may be right, they may also be grossly wrong, and there is no way to tell which is happening. The footnotes in Study Bible’s are often elementary, often bordering on the idiotic. This is true for all brands of Study Bibles, not just the NIV mentioned here.
Take it as a sign that someone is still under Gamaliel’s training if they are still using a Study Bible. They are also not yet ready for casting lots.
In the case of the Pick-A-Number game, it is possible that someone playing the game will have a Study Bible. The page number may, at times, be a map or more commonly an introduction to one of the books in the Bible. When this happens, bear with your weaker brother, and consider the target to be the entire book so indicated, or the first chapter thereof.
You are being warned by this type of target page that you should consider this person not an advanced player. Notes in Study Bibles are not inspired text and they are not Jesus speaking. Don’t ask someone to give a sermon about them. (As people do.)
Use in Bible Studies
The game can be used as a personal challenge, to see if someone can "exegete" (Bible College lingo for ’explain’) any scripture. It can also be used with excellent results in small group Bible studies.
In this case the leader of the Bible Study calls the game. Everyone there gives a number the leader takes the group to the indicated passage. Many, many times I’ve watched as an otherwise obscure subject is applied to the immediate needs of people in the group.
Remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy? This is exactly how it works.
Note the following points:
Because the numbers are dependent on everyone present the game eliminates personal biases towards certain Bible topics, sections, or stories. It forces people to branch out and study and apply a broader set of Bible stories than would normally happen.
This game is also the strongest form of testimony when the someone gets a rebuke. Since the leader did not simply take the group to the passage, no human was responsible. Jesus must have done it through the Holy Spirit. This is what happened to Jonah while he was still on the ship.
This works best in Bible studies when the group leader is clearly through at least their Gamaliel training. They should know scripture well enough to be able to look for and spot applications of the scripture to events in their world.
I’ve found in working with High School age new Christians that they often want to play the game as they try and push on their group leader. They are really learning about the depth that is possible in spiritually mature Christians, something they might not learn any other way.
This is great if the leader is well equipped. If someone wants to come to a Bible Study in order to stump the teacher then so be it. Better than coming for cookies or cake. In this case the game should be played after the regular lesson is over.
The Game on Prayer Drives
In early 1996 I started prayer driving every Sunday after church. I was part of a team that went out into the community in order to pray for whatever the Spirit might indicate. Over the course of two years this included churches, government buildings, visitations with people, and a range of other things. The team was made up mostly of elders from the church as well as a few others who were going to Bible College. Everyone was past the Gamaliel stage of spiritual development.
Because the time was spent mostly in the car we started playing the game as a way to fill the time while driving to various locations. Everyone in the car was qualified as an advanced player and could explain any passage to the group, though often it became a group exercise to find the best explanation. This was great fun and was part of the reason everyone had so much fun on prayer drives.
After several months we noticed something important was going on. The scriptures that came up in this game were not random but they applied immediately to the people, places and things being visiting on the drives. These chapters were the Spirit’s way to prep the team for what was ahead. This happened so often we had to stop and think again about what was going on with this "game."
The first observation about the game that matters to the application in prayer driving is the idea that the numbers selected by everyone playing are logically equivalent to selecting a lot. There are several Bible stories that dwell on casting lots in order to understand Jesus’ will in a matter. For this discussion, consider the account in Acts when the original apostles decide to replace Judas. They felt they needed to replace him, bringing their number back up to 12. They wanted someone who had been a witness as the rest of them had been.
23So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs." 26Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. Acts 1:23-26 NIV
23And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, 25That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. 26And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. Acts 1:23-26 KJV
In nearly all situations, at least in modern Christiandom, a group of Christians is likely to vote on the matter. Voting squashes the lone, small, voice and is not a Biblical discision making process. Voting is NOT what the Apostles did to replace Judas.
The other thing that happens in modern Christiandom is that the group defers to an apparent expert or leader. Leadership positions are always at risk of infiltration by flattery talkers, or sheep skin holders, Chinese government agents, or worse, people who themselves don't know Jesus, nor his ways. The Apostles did NOT defer to an expert or leader when they replaced Judas, even though such people were clearly available.
The Apostles cast lots between the two men they felt were qualified to replace Judas. This is how they made their choice.
Consider this process carefully at various levels. First there was the technical issue of qualifications to be called an Apostle. Though there are many others who are included in this group in the Bible, in this case they are looking for someone who has been close to Jesus, like the 11 who are still together making this decision. This qualification appears to have limited the field of candidates to these two, Joseph and Matthias.
Throughout the field of decision making in Christian circles, technical questions are usually the easiest to answer. There is usually a limited set of possible answers based on the limits of the question. Questions like, "How big of a sound system do we install?" is a technical question that can be answered by people qualified in the technology. Across our experience there are a wide range of possible technical questions that are easily answered by people with skill in the particular area.
In this case the Apostles could answer the question only down to two choices. Their qualification: That it be someone who knows Jesus like we’ve known Jesus isn’t enough to make a full selection. This begs another question. Who, between these qualified people, should be chosen?
What the Apostles do is very insightful. They draw lots in order to discover who Jesus wants as the replacement for Judas. By doing this they are following a principle recorded in a proverb.
33The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. Proverbs 16:33 NIV
33The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord. Proverbs 16:33 KJV
However the lot may fall, the decision is from YHVH.
Understand how this proverb is being activated in the lives of the Apostles. They cannot decide who should replace Jesus, at least not decide and know that they have Jesus’ will in the matter.
By taking the decision making process out of the political realm and into the realm of the lot they have put Jesus back into the decision making loop. By casting lots they directly discover the will of Jesus for the matter.
Remember carefully how this developed. They exhausted the technical issues and reduced the field to two known acceptable candidates. Then they cast lots to decide who would actually get the job. This is a general model of how to determine what God’s will is.
Provided the technical qualifications were not the result of a political desire to see a certain replacement, this process begins in the field we understand. It ends with God speaking his will in the matter. Note that if there is a mistake at the level of qualifications, the resulting passage will not address the question in a clear way. More on this case follows below.
The Bible is a source of inspiration and insight regarding the entire range of human experience. This idea is accepted by nearly everyone, at least nearly every Christian. The problem comes in the area of application. Here, often, Christians apply the Bible like they would a book of theorems in Mathematics.
The application often goes like this. If person A has problem Q, apply Book, Chapter and Verse X,Y,Z. This makes out the Bible to be something like another area of scientific study. It suggests skilled human minds can fully understand all the stories, and how they apply.
The problem, of course, is that this approach completely cuts out the active role of Jesus through his Holy Spirit in the affairs of men. Jesus knows much better than people ever could what the heart of a matter truly is. By using the Bible as an intellectual basis for understanding the world we miss the spiritual application. We cut out Jesus.
When we are praying for a certain situation we often want to know the Scripture, the Bible Story, that applies here. If we attempt to "think up" a passage that we know that is similar, we risk using our limited, and often biased, human minds to get an answer. The problem is our hearts. It often messes with our minds. Jeremiah put it this way.
9The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 NIV
9¶The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9 KJV
Most groups of Christians even if they are out of Gamaliel’s school, are not yet through their time in the wilderness, and cannot hear Jesus’ voice very well. Their hearts guide their thoughts and prayers, more than the Spirit.
When I am with a group praying for a particular situation, I assign only weak credibility when someone offers a Book, Chapter and Verse as an answer to that prayer. What Bible Passages offered this way often do, instead, is reveal how the person giving the address themselves is dealing with the situation.
Lots are better than direct addresses because they eliminate the chance that some "wizzard of scripture" can take the group where they will.
Once we realized that the Holy Spirit would be directing us with Scripture ahead of visits on prayer drives we began to make this a regular thing. We started to expect Jesus to show up this way.
Before heading out on a prayer drive, sometimes even days ahead of a drive, we would stop to pray about the trip and we would cast lots in order to get the scripture for the drive ahead. Eventually we took lots completely outside of prayer driving. One of the most important was as a component of general prayer meetings. "Master Jesus, what scripture do you have for us today?" would be answered in a session of lots.
Asking for a lot, without an specific question, is what we now call an "Open Lot." This is not for making specific decisions, but for giving Jesus his right to take a group anywhere he wants them to go in scripture.
Numbers In Dreams
Once we had the means to convert a number, or a list of numbers, into a scripture address, we then had the ability to take other numbers and convert them to addresses too. The first place we saw this clearly was with dreams. When a dream is prophetic, and when it includes a number or list of numbers, those numbers can be treated as a lot and run through the same process of lookup in scripture.
This was so fruitful that we now consider the numbers in dreams to be first class lots all by themselves. We do, though, usually look for some other link between the dream and the scripture passage in order to ensure something else is not going on.
As an example: consider one recent dream: My prayer group had been working through an earlier dream dealing with a word about gambling. We had been stumped on the meaning. I then had another dream that hit on the same topic.
In the dream I was offered a handful of plastic poker chips. The price I had to pay for the chips, if I wanted them, was $30.50. I declined to purchase the chips in the dream.
When I awoke I looked up 3050 in my Bible and found that the indicated scripture included the Parrable of Buying a field with buried treasure and buying the Pearl of Great Price. This explained the gambling dream we had seen earlier: Don’t go buy just anything, but if you know there to be buried treasure, then buy.
The Holy Spirit used lots to take me to the application I needed in my Bible for the situation in a pair of dreams. This is one example from a field of many which shows how Jesus uses this technique.
We've come to understand that there is a system for determining the meaning of Biblical words based on their spelling. The underlying original letters for the English word "lot" means "Reap-Authoritative-Shepherding.
Lots are used in order to get an authoritative take from Jesus, the shepherd of us all.
The 2010 Change in Rules
As part of our other work we have been developing a new translation of the Bible. In the summer of 2010 we had some versions that had been printed on 8.5x11" paper. This we could print ourselves, without going to a commercial press.
We were carrying this size Bible around and casting lots in the usual way, but we were running into a problem. The amount of text on a given page was much higher than in a Bible printed on bound-book size pages. Lots were much harder to discern because there was so much more text on a given page.
In thinking about this problem I realized that a lot calculator that took the sum of the numbers to be a chapter instead of a page would work better. Not just better for large format pages, but butter even than page numbers because the number of chapters in a Bible are generally higher than than the number of printed pages. Thus, on average, the text in a specific chapter would be less than on an average page.
It would also mean, for example, that it was impossible to get, say, the blank page between testaments. It also meant that everyone would get the same answer to the same total numbers. This had always been a problem with the original system of casting lots.
We developed a printed spreadsheet that could be used to quickly cast lots to the chapter instead of the page. It was easy to use and instead of giving a page number it gave the book and chapter number instead.
When we had this form of lot calculator available to us, the numbers we were given in lot casting sessions switched to this new system and never switched back.
We gave some of the printouts to our friends so they could try them, and they, too, found that the prophetic switched to the new form and also never went back.
We also found that on the Internet that our Bibles don't have text laid out in pages. In that format the only organizing system is whole chapters. Long chapters scroll more, short chapters scroll less.
Chapter based lot casting fit that format well too, since there are no pages there for the search. All of our current lot casting is done with chapters, this includes our printed tools as well as our online tools.
There is another scenario that happens. You or your group has cast a lot and the lot does not answer the question.
Think of it this way... If you went to visit a friend, and you had a question, he might talk about other stuff first before answering you question because he's got other stuff he wants to say... and if you got your question answered fast you would not hang around long enough to hear what else he had to say.
This scenario happens fairly frequently, and you should learn to cast a second lot, or even a bunch of lots, as the story unfolds. You'll know this is happening because the chapters that make up each lot fold together and become a story by themselves.
Another source of multiple lots comes from a lot where the passage says to cast more lots. Sometimes many more lots, or lots for individual people. When you hit one of these, do what it says and cast more lots.
Problems of Reverence
I've been casting lots as described in this article for over 15 years. I've seen many strange situations, some of which I should mention here as cases for others to watch for.
Perhaps the worst is to not understand the reverence due the process of lot casting. It should be treated on par with communion. The idea with both is to come into Jesus' presence. In the case of communion the stain of sin is washed away and we are nearer to Jesus than before.
In the case of casting a lot, the group doing so is also coming into Jesus' presence, often in dramatic and intimate ways.
If the group, or persons in the group, are not prepared, or not in the right state of expectation, then strange things can happen with the lot.
In particular, the lot will address the heart of the group, or someone in the group, and not the question asked. Anyone casting lots should be aware that this can happen.
Problems of Scale
Similar to reverence, you should be aware that you are in effect "entering the throne room in heaven" when you cast lots.
Think of this as physically walking into a king's thrown room. This happens in scripture occasionally, and people like Esther did not do this lightly.
Kings have the right to address your question, as the king did for Esther, or to change subjects, as they often do because they are, well, king.
When there is something going on somewhere else on the earth, but which has the current focus of the heavenly throne room, then the lot may "bump" the subject from what you ask to what Jesus wants to say.
The reference scripture for this case is from Jonah.
10But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" Jonah 4:10-11 NIV
10Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:had pity: or, sparedcame…: Heb. was the son of the night 11And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? Jonah 4:10-11 KJV
Note that Jonah is worried about a gourd, something that was super natural and prophetic in his life, but Jonah's focus there was wrong, he was not focused where he should have been, which was on the 120,000 people living in Nineveh.
We first saw this in the middle of 2001. Lots and dreams were warning on 911, but we could not understand what was going on. The throne room in heaven was already focused on news headlines that for us were still unseen and still unfinished. We were going in with our gourd, he was worried about millions of people. He respected us enough to let us in on his issues, but we were unable to comprehend what was about to happen.
This bumping of subjects happens more in lots I cast now than it did when I first started, in part because I've grown in Jesus, and he wants my attention to be the same as where his attention is focused.
Note that this is a serious issue of interpretation of the lot. Is the group being rebuked? Or the people of the nation? It is sometimes hard to tell, even for someone experianced with lots. Sometimes you must be like Job, and know you're right before Jesus, and that he is not talking about you, but your country instead.
In any case, you must always allow that heaven is focused somewhere that you are not. You must allow Jesus to take you somewhere unexpected.
Now that I’ve used this game for years I must also state that I’ve seen numerous times where a Book, Chapter and Verse is given and then the number from a lot lands in the same place. This shows two things: That that person who heard the Book, Chapter and Verse was hearing correctly, and that Jesus confirms that address.
I’ve also noticed it is nearly impossible for specific individuals to control where Jesus is taking a group. This is nice. Even if there are Masons in the group who might want to infect Masonic Theology into the agenda, the lot process will squeeze them out. This is why the Apostles used lots to replace Judas, they were teaching others how to avoid infiltrators.
It also means that Jesus is able to take his teams beyond the ability of anyone to even comprehend ahead of time where the group should go. In most human endeavor the group is delayed by the slowest member, and what they can comprehend and do. Some groups function smoothly enough to be paced by the abilities of the fastest member. In groups lead by Jesus the group can be taken at Jesus’ speed, often faster and farther than in any other way.
1. Acts 22:3
2. Acts 5:34