Sticks and Stones

Imagine deciding who would be your next business partner based on the flip of a coin. Or deciding which car to buy based on a roll of the dice. Need to find out if someone has been lying to you? Play a quick game of eeny-meeny-miny-moe. Yea, that ought to do the trick. To say someones guilt can be based on a draw of the hat or a major life decision should be taken up to the odds of a coin toss would seem to be bordering on frivolity, by far one of – if not the furthest thing from a rational idea one could have. Many Christians would argue I’m sure that such decisions should be taken to God in prayer first. Some might even argue that the idea of a game of luck deciding one’s fate would be passing into the realm of witchcraft, allowing the devil to decide one’s outcome. Even the name, cleromancy just sounds a bit too wicked for most of us.

But despite our discomfort with this idea, the fact is that cleromancy is at the core of some of the most major decisions in Christian history. From the Jewish counsel to the apostles themselves, they all used cleromancy to decide God’s will. In the Bible this practice took on quite a few forms but the one we know best I’m sure will ring a bell. It was a few small sticks, stones, or other material tossed on the ground and read based on their height or color. These practices are best known to us simply as casting lots.

What is Cleromancy? Is it still used in the church today?

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So what’s the deal with this cleromancy? Is it witchcraft? Is it superstition? Can God really speak through random events? The answer might just be a bit more uncomfortable than we’d like to accept because honestly the answer to all of those questions might just be yes.

Cleromancy, that is, the divination practice in which an outcome is determined by means that normally would be considered random, has been used in civilizations all over the world. Some of the oldest records we have of cleromancy being practiced was with turtle shells. We would read the lines on the backs of turtles to forth tell omens of things that have happened and things to come.

In Eastern Asia, the practices of using two bones of an ox to predict the outcome of an event have been recorded as far back as 2000BC in the Shang Dynasty. Likewise, the Shing dynasty had a much more complex system. IT contained 64 hexagrams laid out with intersecting solid and broken lines, adorned with separate commentary to judge the Yin or Yang, that is, “good or bad” of a situation.

In West Africa, practitioners of the Yoruba religion had their own sortition methods. Called ifa Divination. The practitioners of Yoruba would take the oil and kernels from a palm tree or crushed termite mounds and mash them together, back and forth from one palm of the hand to the other. Cracks and lines would begin to form in the paste and were then were viewed and interpreted. Each line was assigned a binary code with up to 256 different possible outcomes which could be translated into a reference number where the Yoruba people would consult a book containing allegories in the form of song to help overcome the trial at hand. Think of it as finding a passage in the Bible or a hymn in the hymnal but instead of a pastor or music director telling you where to look, its palm tree oil or crushed clay and termite spit. Not flattering but it did the job I suppose.

But to me, the most interesting forms of cleromancy can be found right within the very Bible we know so well.

One of my biggest pet peeves within the Christian community is our blatant obsession with doors. No, not the wooden things that divide your home from the rest of the world. I mean the idea that God is sitting around waiting to open specific doors at specific times and if you aren’t ever watchful you’ll miss His plan. We obsess over whether God is telling us to do this or that. The slightest shift in life leaves us wavering like a palm tree in a hurricane. We have become so obsessed with getting in touch with the Holy Spirit that we have became out of touch despite our frivolous efforts.

Humanity has a fear of commitment – or rather, the regret that comes from committing to something and finding out we missed something better. And Christians of all people seem to have this the worst. Call it Spiritual FOMO if you will. The idea of stepping out of beat with God scares us into a place of stagnation. Like deer in the headlights of a fast moving car we stop dead in our tracks as an infinite list of possible outcomes wiz through our mind. Yet here we are, not acting on a single one of them.

The Hebrews knew this condition of the human mind all too well. As a society rich in documented history they had plenty of examples of missed opportunity to drive them forward. So what system could be used to bypass man’s constant over-thinking and get right to the point? Well, what better way than luck – or in the eyes of the Jews, God’s decision through what seems to be a game of chance.

The first account of cleromancy we come to in the Bible is that of the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim were elements contained on the hoshen, that is the breastplate worn by the high priest. We see this first in Exodus 28. The Urim and Thummim are stones, one white and the other black. These stones were used by the priest to judge someone innocent or guilty. The accuser would face the high priest and vocalize their question towards the stones out loud in a simplistic way that could garner a straight yes or no answer. Then, the high priest would reach into his bag and at random, draw out a stone. If the stone were white God had found them innocent. But if the stone were black God had seen their sin and found them to be guilty.

These stones were the trial, judge, and jury of the old testament. To us, it might seem a bit extreme to cast judgement on someone based only on an accusation and a rock but to the Jews, those rocks were taking the weight off of mankind to figure out God’s plan and taking the decision and placing it directly back in His hands. There’s no denying a black and white answer when it’s looking you in the face. There are no redraws or miscommunications. It’s Shrodinger’s cat before Shrodinger ever had a cat, and it did what they needed it to do: to remove man’s opinions from the equation.

The Urim and Thummim were actively used until the Babylonian exile recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is said that the jews awaited the return of those sacred stones of decision but they never actually showed back up. Plus, prophetic movements were on the rise and though originally the Urim and Thummim were supposed to be present during a prophecy, my guess would be to add validity or dismiss the prophecy at hand, but I suppose God grew tired of man asking the wrong questions and decided to use a mouthpiece instead of glorified marbles. Sure, even the rocks will cry out but why make rocks talk when humans innately have that ability. Though rocks are probably easier to work with. I digress.

Whatever the reason may be, The stones of God’s judgement slipped out of mainstream Jewish practices. But just because we did away with the urim and thummim doesn’t mean we did away with cleromancy. No, divination by objects and the practice of sortition has roots that spread far and wide, from old to new testament; Even into the modern church.

In the book of Numbers 26, Moses divided the lands to create the 12 tribes of Israel. In accordance with being fair, he used Lots to decide which groups received which land. In the story of Jonah, Lots were cast on the raging sea to decide which person had angered God and caused the storm to rage against them. Spoiler alert: it was Jonah. The book of Proverbial Wisdom states that “Thought the Lots may be cast into the lap, every decision they make is directly from Yahweh”. The casting of Lots is mentioned 70 times in the old Testament giving validity to the idea that random objects can in fact be used by God to dictate the outcomes of man.

Of course, most western mindset Christians get uncomfortable when we start talking about anything spooky, and I do think this classifies as “spooky”. I mean, come on. Sticks and rocks deciding land divisions and guilt? Not your everyday, run of the mill events. And may would dismiss such practices as an old testament practice that has “no place with God’s people today”. But the truth is it was casting Lots that helped decide who would help spread the gospel.

The most famous instance of casting Lots happens in the first chapter of the book of Acts. After Judas Hanged himself for betraying Jesus, the disciples were looking for a replacement to take his place. To derail for just a second, 12 is a very significant number in not just biblical history, but in religious history all together. More on that in episodes to come. Now the remaining Disciples were faced with a problem: they had two men deemed worthy of discipleship. So how does one decide between two outcomes without interjecting one’s own opinion? You guessed it. They casted Lots. We know that God chose Matthias over Barsabbas (side note, poor Barsabbas) and just like that their circle was complete.

Many argue that the idea of casting Lots is a dead practice. That the God did away with it’s validity the day the Holy Spirit fell in the upper room. Though Acts is the last account of lots being cast, that does not mean the idea has died. Many Orthodox churches still use Lot casting to decide their priests and popes. The Amish regularly decide who their preachers will be by Lots. The Pietist Christians have used Lots to elect bishops, decide missionaries, and even where to plant churches. To say Lots have died is to ignore our history all together. And while I know many people would find this practice to be, well, frowned upon, I think you might all be surprised to realize most of us have in fact practiced cleromancy, maybe more frequently than we’d like to admit.

The German Pietists I just mentioned are in fact a branch of Lutheran Protestants who dedicate their life to Piety: that is, the practice of living a pure devotion to spirituality and the Christian ways of life. I know, I know, what does German radicle Christianity have anything to do with Cleromancy other than some church plants? Well, you might be surprised to learn that if you have ever been involved in a evangelical, protestant church you have closer ties with German Pietism than you may realize.

When German immigrants came over in the early 1900’s, they brought with them the idea of Pietism and it’s practices. These ideals of living a pure Christian life birthed The Lutheran Church and ultimately the Church of Christ. But Their ways of Faith reached outside of just their Lutheran walls.

Insert John Westley, one of the founders of the Methodist church. Influenced heavily by may of the Pietist leaders, Westley incorporated many of their traditions into the methodist doctrine as cornerstones of belief. These beliefs can be traced throughout the “Holiness movement” Which spans numerous denominations including the Methodists, Church of Christ, Nazarenes, freewill Baptists, and even the Salvation Army.

You might be asking yourself what Germanic Piety, Lutherans, and the modern day church might have in common. Well, the very same German Pietists that we just finished talking about, the ones that influenced so much of the way we believe practiced a form of Cleromancy that might just make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in the same way talking about satanism or demonic activity might make us feel. No, this kind of uncomfortable comes from realizing that you two are part of the very thing in which you are hearing. Kind of Like hearing your name called in a list of people about to get reprimanded at work.

You see, the German Pietists would often use Cleromancy to foretell what God had for them in a specific moment. How? By opening their Bible at random, placing their finger on a verse, and reading it aloud. Sound familiar? And here we are thinking The practice of casting Lots died out with the birth of the New Testament church. But hey, who are we to say God can’t speak through sticks and stones?

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