(First published at SI, June 6, 2006)
Pitfalls in the Pursuit of Biblical Patterns
In Scripture, casting lots is routine. Some might even say it’s the normal way to decide a difficult question. The OT 1 contains 24 references to “cast lots,” “casting lots,” and “the lot fell.” Two of these are in Proverbs where lot-casting is highly recommended.
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord (Prov. 16:33).
Casting lots causes contentions to cease, and keeps the mighty apart (Prov. 18:18).
In addition, the Urim and Thummim (probably a form of lot-casting) have a prominent place in Mosaic Law. All in all, the OT is very pro-lot.
The NT seems to be in favor of the practice as well. Casting lots is mentioned there eight times, and one of them refers to the selection of an apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1:26). So if we have frequent favorable references to lot-casting across both Old and New Testaments, do we have a “biblical pattern”? Should we be casting lots in our churches rather than voting? After all, the Bible contains no direct command to vote on anything (some might argue that voting is the brainchild of humanistic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his ilk).
Issues and Biblical Patterns
I’m not attempting to launch the Cult of the Cast Lot here, but if we shouldn’t cast lots in our churches, why not? The question is not merely academic. Though lot-casting is a non-issue, the process we use to weigh the biblical evidence for it is very similar to the one we must use in handling many hotly debated issues.
Should moms ever work outside the home? Should the children of believers ever attend government schools?2 Should sons and daughters find spouses by arrangement of their parents?3 Should we remove all age-grouped teaching from church life?4 Should churches observe the Lord’s Table every Sunday? Should they meet only in homes5 rather than in church buildings? Those who answer these questions in the affirmative usually make their case using some type of “biblical pattern” reasoning.6 The lot-casting question provides a good test case for examining what constitutes a binding (or “normative”) biblical pattern.
Common Problems with “Biblical Pattern” Interpretation
Sometimes a pattern of behavior in Scripture does reveal a blueprint for God’s people in any age. But we can easily concoct a “biblical pattern” where there actually isn’t one, even when our intent is to be faithful to what is written. Four errors are common in efforts to derive normative patterns from Scripture. We can test for these errors by applying four questions to our thinking.
1. Am I drawing unintended meaning from incidental details?
Biblical pattern reasoning usually relies heavily on narrative, the story and history portions of Scripture. But we often neglect important factors when we handle narrative. In the case of casting lots, the narrative evidence is widespread and clearly shows God using the lot to reveal His will. The lot determined land assignments in Canaan, identified Achan as the offender after the Ai fiasco, and enabled Jonah’s fellow travelers to expose him as a wayward prophet. Nehemiah used the lot to assign various priestly duties (Neh. 10:34). In Acts 1, even the apostles employed the lot.
But the narrative evidence for a normative pattern of casting lots is weak, just as the narrative evidence is weak for many other alleged biblical patterns. The reason is that history has a dual purpose in Scripture. First, it establishes a record of what actually happened. Second, it teaches us what to believe and to do (Rom. 15:4). But sometimes we confuse the two purposes. In the teaching category, a historical account (or fictional story, like a parable) usually has one point.7 This one main point is what the story is really about.
However, in the process of making that point, the narrator includes details that help us feel the reality of the events and take the message to heart. These details are not what the story is about, and the passage doesn’t usually teach anything important about those details.
For example, the fact that David selected five stones when engaging Goliath in combat may suggest important things to us about his attitude and intentions, but the story is not about using slings and doesn’t teach that we should face our foes with five weapons or five principles, etc. The story is about courageously fighting for what’s right, as God directs, and God’s faithfulness in controlling the outcome.
The same is true of the many stories that involve casting lots. In general, people were seeking direction from God in situations for which they had no other way to discern the truth. When the lot was used obediently, the action expressed commitment to do as God willed. The method used was not an emphasized feature of the story.
2. Am I assuming a particular evaluation of events in a story?
Not only does narrative contain incidental details, but sometimes it also records events without any evaluation from the writer. So we learn that Rahab lied to the authorities in Jericho, but we aren’t told whether that specific act was good or bad. And when Abraham dispatched Eliezer to choose a wife for Isaac, we aren’t told whether that was a good policy or if Abraham should have gone himself. We aren’t even told whether the social custom of parents arranging marriages was good or bad. What is clearly good in the story is God’s faithfulness in sustaining His promise to Abraham into the next generation and Eliezer’s commitment to faithful service.
Even the record in Acts 1 falls short of teaching that church leaders should cast lots to make major decisions. The record reveals that the choice was not a popularity contest, but Luke doesn’t comment one way or the other on the merits of seeking God’s will by means of the lot. (The fact that the apostles often made decisions other ways shows that we were not meant to see the lot in Acts 1 as a superior method.)
3. Am I confusing quantity with weight?
Years ago, a polemicist against the NIV painstakingly documented thousands of differences in wording between the NIV and the KJV. It was a tragic waste of time, not because his conclusions were wrong, but because the thousands of examples proved nothing more than what a dozen would have proved: the NIV and the KJV are different.
Sometimes “biblical pattern” builders make the same mistake by thinking that a large number of examples adds weight to the claim that a normative pattern exists. But quantity and evidential weight are not the same thing. The frequency of references to casting lots proves only that doing so was routine. If the number of occurrences were doubled or tripled, we would still have no evidence of a normative biblical pattern, a blueprint that God expects us to follow today.
4. Am I reading the pattern back into Scripture rather than deriving the pattern from it?
We are all influenced by personal bias when interpreting the Bible. When we search for answers, there are always some answers we, at some level, hope to find or not to find. The art of building biblical patterns is especially vulnerable to this kind of unwitting distortion.
In the case of casting lots, there have been no church splits or denominations formed over the issue (to my knowledge). If the matter had that kind of history, many would turn to the references to lots in Proverbs and see conclusive proof of a normative biblical pattern. Absent some form of bias, however, we can easily see why the statements in Proverbs don’t establish such a pattern.
It’s widely recognized that Proverbs express principles that are broader than the details of ancient culture described in them. So proverbs commend casting lots but also commend just weights, a rod for the fool’s back, etc. The call to use just weights expresses the principle of honesty in business, and the rod for the fool reminds us that fools often need punitive discipline. Similarly, the proverbial praise for lot-casting teaches us that there is really no such thing as luck (Prov. 16:33) and that some form of unbiased arbitration is often the best way to resolve a dispute (Prov. 18:18). The method named in these proverbs is not the point.
Sometimes scattered biblical references to a practice prove nothing at all. Rarely, in other cases, they add up to only one reasonable interpretation. Most of the time, however, they suggest a handful of possible conclusions. The result is that, more often than not, a potential biblical pattern helps us form an opinion on a matter of conscience but falls short of establishing a biblical mandate. If we have no biblical pattern requiring us to cast lots, some of our other “biblical patterns” are probably imaginary as well.
1 English Bible searches and quotations are the NKJV.
3 E.g., http://www.kaleochurch.com/sermon/biblical-courtship/, http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/famdate.htm, and http://www.rohichurch.org/pastors-blog/biblical-model-for-finding-a-mate/
6 Some other examples of “biblical pattern” reasoning: http://www.cbf.us/resources/giving.htm, http://www.christianitytoday.com/workplace/articles/attitude/biblicalpatternforconflictresolution.html, http://www.lovesark.net/biblenyou/patterns.php, and http://www.eefweb.org/sermons/topical/Child%20Rearing/1Covenantal%20Continuity.html
7 If there secondary points, they are related to the one.
Aaron Blumer, SI’s site publisher, is a native of lower Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and served in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software development.