From Calgary: In the book of Jonah when there was a mighty tempest in the sea, the mariners decided to cast lots “so that they may know for whose cause this evil is upon us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell upon Jonah. My question is what exactly is casting lots and how did it determine that Jonah was the cause of the storm without him volunteering any information?

Pastor Jory Brooks responded: We read of this incident in Jonah 1:7. The casting of lots is mentioned several times in the Old Testament (Lev. 16:8; Josh. 18:6; 1Sam. 14:42; Neh. 10:34; Esth. 3:7; Prov. 16:33), and in Acts 1:26 Matthias was selected by lots to be the Apostle replacing Judas.

John Wesley’s Commentary says, “Lots are an appeal to heaven in doubtful cases, and therefore not to be used but where the matter is undeterminable in any other way.” The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary adds, “Although the casting of lots was sometimes used to allow the deity to communicate, in many instances they were considered more like flipping a coin or drawing straws. As a result the lots were not cast here to determine who was guilty, but to decide who would be first to volunteer information about themselves that might expose an offense against the gods…For the casting of lots, each individual brought an identifiable marker. The markers were placed in a container, which was shaken until one of the markers came out.”

These markers may have been marked stones, something akin to the dice used today in gambling. However, when used as an appeal for God’s intervention, Proverbs 16:33 advises, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing of it is the Lord’s.” It was therefore God who determined the result of the casting of lots.

Verse ten reveals that Jonah had previously told the sailors that he was fleeing his God. They no doubt suspected that the storm was caused by his disobedience and was putting them all in jeopardy, but they first proceeded to cast lots. (This was the usual procedure in that era.) After the lot fell on Jonah (v.7), the sailors asked about his parentage, occupation, and country (v. 8). Identifying his country would reveal the god he worshipped, and his occupation might reveal whether he was disreputable and inviting the anger of heaven. Interestingly, Jonah did not directly answer most of their questions. Instead, he told them that he served the God who controlled nature and the elements, which was a tacit subtle admission that the unusual tempest was due to problems between he and his God (v.9).

The pagan sailors (probably Phoenicians) showed greater faith at this point than Jonah, asking him (in plain English) “why would you do such a thing as anger your God?” This weighed on his heart heavily and he then admitted openly that he was the cause of the storm, saying, “I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you” (v.12)