You Can Read the Bible

Embarrassed By Cleromancy

Matt Carter

Leviticus is one of those books of the Bible that we Christians tend to get embarrassed about. It’s probably the most commonly used book by non-Christians to show that biblical belief is arbitrary if not downright nonsensical or even cruel. The shape this show-and-tell argument usually takes is to cite from Leviticus a law, for example, against growing two different kinds of seed in the same field. Since there is no valid reason we can imagine for why this law should be divine truth, it is judged to be archaic and superstitious. We Christians often deal with this problem by insulating what we think are the core parts of the Bible from these embarrassing parts. We can then respond with something like “Leviticus is not really relevant anymore.”

This is a serious problem, and one of the ways this problem expresses itself is by us not really taking the Old Testament seriously or even bothering to read it. So, let’s take this problem seriously and try to understand what’s really going on with this Leviticus show-and-tell embarrassment by looking at the part of Leviticus that is the most easily dismissed, nonsensical, and irrelevant—the casting of lots on the Day of Atonement to decide which goat is the scapegoat. We can really easily dismiss the casting of lots as just something people did in the past when they just didn’t know any better. They didn’t have our progress, our education, our know-how, our science, our technology. So, they cast lots, because they didn’t have anything better. We don’t cast lots, because we know better than that.

So, what is casting lots, anyway? We understand casting lots to be relying on chance, and so we put the casting of lots into the same category of relying on random chance as throwing dice or flipping a quarter. The fancy name given for these things is cleromancy. It’s what you do when the outcome isn’t of life and death importance, and you just want a nice random outcome. So, we flip a coin to determine which side of the field our football team starts the game. So, if we take the time to think about the casting of lots to decide which goat is sacrificed and which is the scapegoat in Leviticus, we probably just assume the outcome doesn’t matter much. It’s just a goat, and they’re practically identical as unblemished male goats after all.

I want to suggest that our dismissal of casting lots says a lot more about our lack of faith than it does about the state of knowledge in ancient Israel. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably can acknowledge that for ancient Israel, the Day of Atonement was exceedingly important and that the casting of lots was a way to discern the will of God. It was neither random nor unimportant which goat became the scapegoat. Nor is the use of casting lots or other apparently chance-based decision tools like the Urim and Thummim limited to Leviticus or even the Old Testament. How did the sailors know that Jonah was connected to the perilous storm? They cast lots. How did the disciples know who should be Judas’ replacement? They cast lots. Think about that. That was a really important momentous decision that they were making. They determined who would be a disciple by a process we rationally understand to be entirely governed by random chance. This was not some meaningless decision like who starts a football game on which side of the field.

The primary difference between these biblical characters and us is not that they had no better way of making a decision like who should be the next disciple than to rely on chance. Of course, they had more knowledge than that and could make informed decisions and form judgments. After all, these early church leaders gave us guidelines for deacons and elders, including the qualifications and characteristics of the people who should be chosen. No, the primary difference is that they understood much more intuitively and deeply than we do, that the LORD is the person who should be making these decisions. They called out to God to decide, because they recognized that they were not capable of properly making this decision. Through the eyes of faith, they also knew that the LORD can use any and all means to reveal Himself and His will to us, including the casting of lots. If the God of the Bible is who He says He is and who we profess Him to be, then, of course, He can reveal His will to us through the casting of lots.

So, is it simply that we lack enough faith? Maybe we should cast lots again? No, it isn’t that simple either. We do, in fact, have faith. In fact, we do already rely on decision-making processes that we don’t really understand to make important determinations all of the time. We also inflate our own rationality and knowledge about the world, especially in comparison to people earlier in history. We value our own and others’ abilities and capabilities so highly that it’s hard for us to imagine that there are vital parts of reality that are not affected by them. We work so hard at what we do in our ordinary lives that we really want all of that effort and development to make all of life better. We do this so much that it’s hard for us to admit that life before all of the effort we and others are making and have been making might have been better in some meaningful way than it is now.

We don’t cast lots anymore, because now we form committees. We just tend to ignore the faith-based reality that these processes too are ruled by God and worked through by Him so that we can pretend that we are more rational and understand more than we actually do. We do this, because we are trained to be existentially afraid to walk fully in faith with the knowledge deep in our bones that God is in complete control not us. So, we imagine that we are both more rational and knowledgeable than those people before us and that we are living a less faith-based life than we actually are.

To illustrate this, consider both the outrageously nonsensical premodern faith-based decision-making process that was the medieval trial by ordeal and an ordinary church nominating committee today. The medieval trial by ordeal was what Europeans relied on to determine a person’s guilt or innocence whenever ordinary evidence was insufficient. It was their way of casting lots. They were asking God to reveal a person’s guilt or innocence, and like on the Day of Atonement, this revelation went through a seemingly bizarre and inappropriate process mediated by a priest.

The process went like this. The accused person would put her hand into a pot of boiling water a pull out a ring. If her arm was burned, she was guilty. If she was not burned, she was innocent. This process would all happen during a special mass during which the priest would pray to God that He would reveal the truth about the accused through this ordeal process. That’s why these ordeals were considered the judgments of God. They relied on faith. Our modern problem with them is that they seemed to rely only on faith and not on reason. Actually though, it was because they relied on faith that they were also rational. Because they were faith-based, they were both rational and efficient ways of learning the truth and making an important decision. How so?

Imagine you stole some family’s porridge, but before you could go off to their bed and get some sleep, you were arrested. There’s insufficient evidence to prove your guilt. It’s a classic he said-she said case. So, you’re brought before the priest so that He can call on God for His judgement. Importantly, you all believe not only in God but that He does act and reveal Himself in the here and now present. You’ve also been around boiling water enough to know that it burns you. The penalty for porridge theft is a fine, and if you go through the ordeal and are found guilty, you will not only have a larger fine to pay, you’ll also be burned. Your only hope if you choose this option is that God would miraculously intervene to prevent you from being burned, which would announce to everyone that you were innocent, which you know is a lie. From the standpoint of someone who believes in God, how likely would it be that you would willingly go through this ordeal? Not very likely at all. You would confess, because you know God isn’t going to lie for you. Now imagine that you’re innocent but accused. What will you do? You would be much more likely to go through with the ordeal and rely on God to save you, trusting that He will uphold justice. Because of the belief of the people concerned, this process rationally incentivizes the accused person to reveal their own guilt or innocence by the choice they are likely to make. One common way that God saved you from burning your arm in this ordeal, after you revealed your innocence through your belief-based choice, was for the priest to sprinkle a lot of cool holy water over the cauldron after it was removed from the fire and pray for a long time to give the water time to cool off.

This decision-making process was rational in a world in which belief in God was a taken for granted given. We may now live in a very different world, but the big difference between now and then has more to do with our world’s resistance to belief in God than it has to do with our superior knowledge or rationality. It is this new reality that belief in God is no longer a safe assumption that pressures us into embarrassment at Leviticus and the casting of lots.

How does this compare to our belief in committees as a process that reveals correct answers? Committees are strikingly similar to the judicial ordeal as a belief-based tool that we use to arrive at truth. We like to use committees, because we’ve been trained to believe in democracy and diversity. Imagine you believed that neither democracy nor diversity help us discern truth. Then we would have no good reason to believe that a group of people with a wide range of education, experience, and even interest in nominating church members for church offices would be at all an effective way to make these choices. Maybe a strong and trusted leader would make better choices, for example. Our belief in democracy makes our use of a nominating committee in the church seem rational to us. Notwithstanding the wisdom of crowds, the mathematics of which very few of us are aware of, the rationality of using a committee is really a function of our prior belief in democratic processes. One way that we know this is by studying other cultures around the world that don’t rely on committees for important decisions like this. So, it is not that we as a society no longer believe. It is the case that we no longer believe in the same things anymore. This felt difference is what drives we Christians to embarrassment over casting lots.

So, why does this matter? First, to acknowledge that our belief in something makes it seem rational to us is not a problem for Christians, but it is a significant problem for those like ‘scientistic’ atheists who want to pretend that they can derive truth purely from reason alone. This matters a lot, because like the people of Israel, we in the church are called to be witnesses in this world to our life-giving LORD. Our faith is in many ways a sense-making organ for us, through which we can see our dependence on God in all things. We need not be embarrassed or ashamed that people in the Bible cast lots or that Leviticus says things we may not understand. It is enough for us to have faith that we are members of the kingdom of God. When we are explicit about our reliance on the LORD and our faith in Him, we no longer have to carry the burden of being able to explain every mystery. We don’t need to feel embarrassed when we can’t rationally explain something without reference to belief. Many of the most important decisions in our lives rely primarily on our beliefs—marriage, children, career, ….. That’s par for the course for a creature like us. It’s an experience we share with non-believers. Helping them to realize it too through our explicit acknowledgement of our dependence on belief may be an important way for the Spirit to speak to them.

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