By Elizabeth Prata
Did you know that the practice of casting lots is called cleromancy? I didn’t. Wikipedia defines it-
Cleromancy is a form of sortition, casting of lots, in which an outcome is determined by means that normally would be considered random, such as the rolling of dice, but are sometimes believed to reveal the will of God
Casting lots was a method used by the Jews of the Old Testament and by the Christian disciples prior to Pentecost to determine the will of God. Lots could be sticks with markings, stones with symbols, etc., which were thrown into a small area and then the result was interpreted. … There are many instances of casting lots in the Bible.
And Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. (Leviticus 16:8)
And they cast lots for their duties, all alike, the small as well as the great, the teacher as well as the pupil. (1 Chronicles 25:8)
They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:18)
And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves by casting lots. (Matthew 27:35)
And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:26)
Here is a list of casting lots as cited from the New Nave’s Topical Bible by Swanson, James, and Orville Nave, 1994.
Lev. 16:8; Num. 34:13; 36:2; Josh. 17:14; 18:6, 8, 10; 21:8; 1 Chr. 6:65; 24:31; 25:8; 26:13, 14; Neh. 10:34; 11:1; Esth. 3:7; 9:24; Psa. 22:18; Prov. 1:14; 16:33; Isa. 34:17; Ezek. 24:6; Joel 3:3; Obad. 1:11; Jonah 1:7; Mic. 2:5; Nah. 3:10; Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24; Acts 1:17, 26; 1 Pet. 5:3.
There is one scene of casting lots that isn’t listed above, and that is when the priests were deciding which priest will fulfill the role of burning the incense in the temple.
The priestly service was massive. 1 Chronicles 23:2-6 lists the numbers. There were 24,000 priests. 4,000 were gatekeepers, and 4000 played the instruments. David divided the number of priests into sections or ‘courses’. The temple was enormous and required a huge number of priests necessary to perform the daily rituals and manage the twice daily sacrifices. Allow me to describe Zecharias’s day according to Alfred Edersheim in his classic book The Temple–Its Ministry and Services (1894).
When a priest’s course was on duty he was required to be at the Temple. Each course stayed for one week, from Sabbath to Sabbath. Before dawn, the priests assembled to cast lots as to which priest would perform which duty. The first item of business was to fill the lavers and prepare the altar, and that was settled by lot. Those priests who were gatekeepers opened the gates at 9 am and blew the trumpets to announce their readiness for service. The second lot was cast to see which priests would perform the sacrifice at break of day. Duties here included cleansing the candlestick and the altar of incense as well as the actual slaying of the lamb and salting it.
After that, service included trimming the lampstand, burning the incense, presenting the burnt offering and drink offering, blessing the people and blasting the silver trumpets. Then came the singers singing the Psalm of the day, accompanied by some of the 4000 priests playing instrumental music. People were gathered in the courts praying during this time. Private devotions and sacrifices commenced until the evening service, which began at 2:30 and concluded at 4:00.
At night, the priests were on watch inside the gates. Now to Zacharias.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. (Luke 1:8-9)
The incense duty according to Edersheim,
The incense burned upon this altar was prepared of the four ingredients mentioned in Exodus 30:34, with which, according to the Rabbis, seven others were mixed, besides a small quantity of ‘Ambra,’ and of a herb which gave out a dense smoke. To these thirteen substances (Josephus. Wars, v. 5. s.) salt was of course added. The mode of preparing the incense had been preserved in the family of Abtinas. The greatest care was taken to have the incense thoroughly bruised and mixed. Altogether 368 pounds were made for the year’s consumption, about half a pound being used every morning and evening in the service.
According to Edersheim, no priest could burn the incense who had done it before.
The Temple was an extremely busy place. Imagine the scene with Zacharias in the Holy Place, ministering with the incense, and suddenly Gabriel appears. More amazingly, Gabriel has a message from God for Zacharias, and even more amazingly, the news was that Zacharias will become a father in his old age.
The verse in Luke 1:7 says they were advanced in years. At that time in Israel, the commonly accepted threshold for agedness was about 60. The verse also says they had no child. This meant that had no hope of birthing a son in the line of the Messiah, something that the two who were considered “blameless” as the verse says, surely had hoped for. Barrenness was seen as a failure and a moral reproach. Yet both Zacharias and Elisabeth worshipped and ministered. They were keeping His commandments and walking in His way, despite their devastating personal disappointment and cultural calamity.
The Lord had chosen Zacharias and Elisabeth (and her cousin Mary) since before the foundation of the world to be crucial participants in the Messiah’s story.
Therefore, what were the “chances” that of the 20,000 priests divided into their rotations, that Zacharias’ course would come up at that exact time? What were the “chances” that the lot would fall to Zacharias to minister in the incense that day? None. Because there is no such thing as chance.
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33).
This is the way that the LORD wanted to make His announcement to the main participants in His nativity story. He ordained each of the priestly courses in rotation immediately before Zacharias’s, and the one before that, and the one before that, and before that.
He ordained that Zacharias would marry Elisabeth who was also a daughter within the priestly line of Aaron. And their parents before that, and the grandparents before that, and before that and before that. Back to the Garden and before that, since the moment He spoke the world into existence, God has set His hand on all plans, all actions, all activities would be consistent with and part of His overall decree that these things will come to pass. This is the wonder and mystery of prophecy.
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.(Proverbs 16:33).
A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection published by Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster.
#2 in the Nativity/Advent Series, Anna: The Lord’s Precious Widow