Before we get to cast lots and discover the fascinating source of the English plural noun ‘lots,’ we need a brief refreshment of biblical knowledge, a wee splash of the waters of life across our tepid foreheads.

In the Old and New Testament, when an ordinary person needed to break a tie or make a tricky choice, or any time officialdom could not decide on a course of action, lots were cast to pick a random answer. The most common lots were sheep knuckles often marked with signs. Or one could throw down on the ground small sticks or marked twigs. The stick that landed on top of the others was the winner and represented the winning choice. This was casting lots.

The most notorious flinging down of the marked pebbles or bones or lots was at the foot of the Cross, after Jesus had been crucified. Roman soldiers scurried to divide up Christ’s clothing, so, to prevent an unseemly, garment-rending argument, the soldiers cast lots. Matthew 27:35 (KJV, King James Version) “And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.”

What were the actual ancient lots? No solid proof exists. We don’t know. Lots might have been sticks of various lengths, flat stones, pebbles with markings scratched on them or some kind of early dice.

The Old Testament book of Psalms comprises 150 sacred songs, lyric poems and prayers. Below I quote all of Psalm 22, for that psalm is “the prophet” spoken of in Matthew. According to Old Testament tradition, Psalm 22 was written by David around 1000 BCE. Jesus’ crucifixion was in 30’s CE. So, is Psalm 22 then a prophesy of the Messiah’s crucifixion one thousand years before it took place? Most modern biblical scholars say no.

What some orthodox Christian students will not discuss is what is plainly evident in the messianic psalms and their later, detail-copying New Testament gospels. Whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew and whoever wrote the other gospels, they had ALL read the psalms. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion are crammed with direct psalmic quotations. When both Mark and Matthew report Jesus on the Cross crying out, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (Aramaic: ‘God, God, Why have you forsaken me?’). It is a direct translation of the earlier Hebrew in Psalm 22.

The Jewish writers of the New Testament were nervously concerned to show readers that Jesus died exactly according to ancient prophesies. Were they therefore willing to fudge the facts a bit and in writing their gospel stories of the life of Christ make Jesus’ every moment on earth appear to be the operation of an almighty divine will and the precise fulfilment of a one-thousand year-old prophesy? Of course they were! In Acts 2:30, the apostle Peter assures his gullible listeners and few readers, “David, being a prophet ... he foresaw and spoke of ... the Christ.” There is not one iota, not one jot or tittle of proof for such a statement. Zilch. Bupkes. Klum.

Psalm 22 is a primitive Hebrew lament, a call-out to God stating that the hurting speaker of the psalm is suffering and is in deep anguish. Verses 1 to 21 are the lament. Verses 22 to 31 are praise of God in spite of one’s suffering. Read the psalm and see if you agree.

Psalm 22 (KJV)

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

2 O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.

4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.

5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.

6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.

7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,

8 He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.

9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts.

10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly.

11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.

12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.

13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.

15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.

16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.

17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.

18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

19 But be not thou far from me, O Lord: O my strength, haste thee to help me.

20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

21 Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

22 I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.

23 Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.

24 For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.

25 My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.

26 The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the Lord that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.

27 All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.

28 For the kingdom is the Lord's: and he is the governor among the nations.

29 All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.

30 A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.

31 They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

There is not one line, not one phrase, that forecasts a specific Christ in this psalm. The lament portion of this psalm contains thoughts and feelings that might have been felt by any human being feeling estranged from divine safeguarding and refuge.

The Origin of the English Word Lot
In Old English it was hlot akin to Old High German luz ‘share of land, portion’ and the Viking word, Old Norse hlutr ‘share, divided portion.’ It may be cognate with the Latin verb claudere ‘to close, to decide’ and the ancient Greek kleis, kleidos ‘key, bolt, opener, decider.’ In Old French lot meant ‘goods for sale,’ hence our most common modern use of lots to mean ‘plenty of. . .’ A lot in a land sale is the same word meaning ‘a portion of land.’

To cast lots is to gamble by throwing down marked pebbles. A similar sense appears in most of the European languages: Middle High German lōzwerfen , Old French jeter au los , classical Latin sortēs cōnicere , ancient Greek κλῆρον βάλλειν, all with the basic sense of ‘throw lots.’

To draw lots is to pick the longest or the shortest straw or twig and get selected into performing a possibly dangerous action like capturing a wild outlaw.

One’s destiny or lot in life derives from the same noun.

Cleromancy and sortition are our two obscure words for today. Cleromancy involved tossing down black and white beans, little bones or dice or marked pebbles. Kleroi is ancient Greek for ‘lots’ and the –mancy ending is ancient Greek μαντεία manteia ‘prophesy’ from μαντεύεσθαι manteuesthai ‘to prophesy’ from ancient Greek μάντις mantis ‘prophet, diviner. Consider an insect, the praying mantis, so named because the first entomologist to dub it thought its oddly raised front legs made the stick insect resemble a magician or seer making a prophesy.

Sortition has its root in the Latin word sors and its plural sortes. The singular referred to ‘fate, share, fortune, condition, outcome of a prophesy, lot.’ The abstract noun sortition names the act of prophesying by means of lots.

English phrases like “all sorts of things” and “we’ll have to sort this out” and “what sort of fellow is he?” all stem from the same Latin root, sors, sortis.


This derivative of ‘lot’ arrived in the sixteenth century in French, Dutch and English approximately at the same time. But the Middle French extension of lot, loterie, may have been first, with Flanders borrowing the term as early as 1444 CE as Middle Dutch lotinge ‘action of drawing lots.’

Bill Casselman

April 20, 2016

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Lots of Lotteries

learn words & the difference between the casting of lots & the drawing of lots

At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman