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Cleromancy in the Old Testament

Solomon Nigosian
It is not always easy to discover the nature of the arts, but certainly cleromancy (divination by casting
lots) was a popular and approved practice in Old Testament times. Cleromancy was generally regarded as
one of the methods of obtaining divine information regarding disputed questions, or decisions on various
activities or affairs (cf. Prov. 16:33; 18:18). The belief that YHWH sanctioned this practiced is seen in the
expression of the prophets who regarded YHWH as casting lots to determine the fate of Israel (cf. Isa.
34:17; Jer. 13:25; see also Ps. 16:5).
He [YHWH] has cast for them a lot;
And his hand has divided for them by line;
For ever they shall possess it!
From generation to generation they shall dwell in it!
[Isa. 34:17]
How deeply rooted this practice remained among the people can be seen in the evidence recorded even
after their return from the exile (Neh. 10:34; 11:1f.).
Since the days of the wilderness, YHWH had sanctioned the lot-casting procedure for the allotment of
“inherited land” (Num. 26:52-56; 33:54; 34:13; 36:2-3); and during the days of Joshua, the assignment
and distribution of various captured territories were determined by lot-casting (Josh. 18-21; cf. also 1
Chron. 6:54-81). No one would dare to dispute the allotment resulting from such a procedure since it was
accepted as the decreed will of the deity.
Again, various duties and services were assigned by cleromancy. Porters, musicians, singers, and priests
had to perform their specified duties according to the decree destined for them (1 Chron. 24-26).
From the story of Haman the Agagite and King Ahasuerus, one learns that lot-casting was one of the
methods of seeking divine direction in determining the most favorable day for performing an operation
(Esther 3:7; 9:24).
A few more examples confirm the widespread use of cleromancy in Old Testament times. The ancient
Israelites resorted to lot-casting in order to know which tribe was divinely decreed to go and avenge the
Benjaminites for their maltreatment of the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 20:9, 18). Again, Aaron cast lots in
order to determine which of the sacrificial animals belonged to YHWH and which to ‘Azazel (Lev. 16:6-
10). Samuel resorted to cleromancy in order to know who was divinely decreed to become the first king
of Israel:
Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. He
brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its families, and the family of the Matrites was taken by
lot; finally he brought the family of the Matrites near man by man, and Saul the son of Kish was
taken by lot. [1 Sam. 10:20-21].
Furthermore, moral matters could only be determined according to divine will; hence, through the casting
of lots, the supernatural powers would unmistakably demonstrate the guilty individual. There are three
classic examples recorded in the Old Testament of determining guilt by cleromancy. The offense of
Achan clearly illustrates the procedure taken in seeking the reason for divine displeasure. Tribe by tribe,
family by family, and finally, man by man, the lot was cast until it distinctly pointed to Achan as the
person responsible for arousing the anger of the deity (Jos. 7:16-21).
Similarly, in the case of Saul and Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:36f.), the lot was divinely directed to establish
Jonathan as guilty of breaking his father’s oath. And, in the familiar incident of Jonah, the disfavor of the
deity was evident from the mighty storms of the sea (Jon. 1:16). The sailors wanted to know why the
supernatural powers were so angry, and therefore they resorted to cleromancy. Surprisingly the lot
pointed out Jonah as the person responsible for causing the anger of the deity; and until he was thrown
into the water the anger of the deity was not appeased.
Taken from, OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, 1978, pp. 59-61