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At the beginning of Acts, the eleven decide that it is appropriate to replace Judas. To do so, they narrow down the list of candidates to two men: Joseph and Matthias. Then they pray, "Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over the apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs." After this they cast lots, and it falls to Matthias, so he was added.

There don't seem to be any other examples of praying and then casting lots in the New Testament. Was this practice atypical? And if so, why was the practice adopted for this decision?

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No other examples by Christians, you mean? –  GalacticCowboy Nov 18 '11 at 13:01
Yeah, I meant in the context of prayer or before God. Obviously the soldiers as the cross cast lots to gamble for clothes; I guess I wasn't thinking of those as the same practice. –  Soldarnal Nov 18 '11 at 15:35
Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/4394/423 –  Dan Feb 27 '14 at 4:07

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

First of all, the believers in Acts 1 had not yet received the Holy Spirit. However, their trust was placed in something they knew of God:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33 ESV)

Other Old Testament verses that refer to this practice include Proverbs 18:18 (settling a quarrel or choosing between opposing sides), Joshua 18:8-10 (the division of the land) and Psalm 22:18, which is also used in the New Testament account of the crucifixion. I'm sure there are many others as well, but several others refer to the use of the practice by people such as the foreign kings who came to carry the people into exile. So probably not the best imagery for a practice used by the church.

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Casting lots was used to allocate land, as noted by Galactic Cowboy (Joshua 18). In 1 Sam 14:41 King Saul and Jonathan are "taken by lot" to be punished, and then lots are cast between them (with Jonathan losing).

In the Samuel passage it says that they inquired of YHVH. It is possible that the casting of lots here refers to divination using the urim and tummim, mysterious objects that are part of the high priest's regalia.

The Tanakh also records foreign rulers casting lots to determine the date that they will attack the Jews (Esther 3:7).

Whether this means people would have cast lots to make decisions at the time of Acts is unclear, but the history was certainly known to them. Further, if Jesus's followers saw him as the head of a new priesthood, then perhaps they might have chosen to use a divination method used by the high priest, with their prayer standing in for not actually having the high priest's divination tools directly available.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of any religious belief or doctrine.

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