Chance, Coincidence, and the Providence of God

Sheila and I are getting ready to do a quick series in Esther this summer, and – as usual – I’m busy soaking up the text in preparation.

Interpreting this book, it turns out, requires some serious reflection on an issue that has been the subject of a lot of discussion in my world lately. The question is this: when is an event only chance or coincidence and when does it reflect an act of God?

Esther is a book that celebrates purim, a Jewish festival that is named after the pur. Pur were clay cubes (virtually identical to modern dice) that were used by ancient pagans to discover the will of the gods. Pur were also called lots. Thus, to this day, we still refer to casting lots when we talk about taking chances and we refer to our lot in life when we want to describe the seemingly random circumstances in which we find ourselves.

At the heart of Esther is a reversal of fortune. Haaman, the bad guy in the book, uses the pur to determine the date on which the Jewish people will be destroyed. However, in the end of the story, it becomes the day on which Haaman himself (and, contextually, a long-running fued between the Jews and a race known as the Aggites) is brought to an end.

The very curious thing about Esther is that it is a celebration of events that are seemingly the result of nothing more than chance. The purportedly random events are wonderfully ironic, but – on the surface at least – they are presented only as happy coincidence.

No one prays. No one expresses trust in God. God never speaks. We are never told that God comes into the story to do anything. No one thanks or credits God for anything. Instead, a potential tradgedy is suddenly transformed into a cause for celebration as a result of seemingly ordinary, though unlikely, events.

My questions about what happens in Esther mirror my questions about the day-to-day life of myself and the people I know and love. Good, unlikely things sometimes happen. Why? How? Is God there? Is it all chance?  How can we know? Why do we feel like we need to know? Why do we seem to thrive on these stories? Does it matter?

Is there also a danger in this line of thought? What about seemingly bad, random things? Is God deserving of equal credit for those as well? If God is responsible for one person getting a great parking space for a day of shopping at the mall, should we also credit God with a fatal tire-failure, which kills an infant and three children on a nearby freeway?

These are the questions I’m asking myself lately.

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10 Responses to Chance, Coincidence, and the Providence of God

  1. Richard says:

    I’ve often struggled with this. Even in the NT we see casting lots to make important decisions. Why don’t modern Christians do the same?

    I think the issue boils down to ancient versus modern views of human agency. Ancient people were much more fatalistic, and in a good way. Amor fati was a big deal. In our modern world, we don’t like amor fati. We like to think we control our own decisions. Plus, we feel the need to make our decision come our “right.” We fear the sub-optimal outcome. Why? Because our inflated sense of agency makes us feel responsible for the outcome.

    Thus, I don’t think we cast lots because we have lost amor fati. We want to CONTROL the outcome. We are not interested in RECONCILING ourselves to outcomes. Thus, although we “consult” God in prayer we rarely let the choice fall completely outside our powers. We won’t, literally and figuratively, roll the dice.

  2. toby says:

    It seems that the casting of lots ended with Pentecost. After the Spirit arrived, there was no need for that system anymore since a new connection and relationship with God emerged. However, I agree with Richard in that modern humanity chooses to control their own decisions and not submit to God and therefore not utilized the new relationship with the Father.
    Matt, a very interesting tangent to your study of Esther that you may or may not want to explore for fun is the amazing parallels between Hamaan’s efforts and his hanging with the Holocost and the following trails. Coincidence?

  3. [...] Matt recently posted on chance, coincidence, and the providence of God—a post prompted by reading the book of Esther. I commend the whole post to you, but I would [...]

  4. Matt, I didn’t realize you had a blog, or I would have been reading it! Thanks to Richard, now I know. Thanks for a provocative post; follow the link to Higgaion for some of my own reflections.

  5. Matt says:

    Great comments, guys.

    Richard-you’ve got me thinking about whether the absence of God “in the dice” is more a modern problem than one that was bothersome to the original audience of Esther. Would they have readily assumed that God is in control of fate, so to talk about fate is to talk about God’s will all at once?

    Toby-I also think you’re onto something: why do we need dice in a spirit-led community? Lets discern what God is doing and get with it, rather than consulting dice!

    Chris-First, good to hear from you! I had no idea you were blogging yourself, but I’m about to add you to my bloglines subscription list. Second, I read your reflections on this question, and while I’m struggling to follow the latter part – I think you understand the question exactly, and I love the way you’ve elaborated on it.

    There is another dimension to all of this that I may blog about later that I only suggested in the next-to-last paragraph, which is this: Does the fact that a good thing happened to me mean that God is with me – i.e., that he has shown favor?

    I’m interested in: (a) the reality of what is going on AND (b) the issue of whether it is supritually healthy to be constantly trying to discern what God did here and there.

  6. curtis says:

    great thoughts here on a VERY intriguing topic… I think about this a lot. In fact, I have a very hard time, personally, with understanding the part that prayer plays in our lives in relation to this topic. Since the majority of examples of prayer that I see from people around me are them asking God for things, praying that it’s His will that someone will be healed, etc… And those things don’t typically happen, or at least it seems somewhat random…

    So what do we do with that? I share your desires to know that reality of what’s going on as well as to understand whether or not it’s a good idea for us to continually try discerning God’s will in the minutia of life…

  7. I disagree that the casting of lots “seems to have ended with Pentecost.” Because something has fallen out of favor doesn’t mean it was necessarily superceded by Pentecost.

    The casting of lot has a long and venerable history in the O.T. and it appears to have been considered the most sure fire and least debatable means by which to choose a new apostle in the N.T.

    Moveover, the church fathers discussed the practice of casting lots for centuries. Aquinas cited some of their views when he gave his own opinion on the subject. Even after the Reformation various Protestant sects still practiced the casting of lost, and/or outlawed the tossing of dice en toto because they did not want to diminish the seriousness with which they still took the casting of lots. See my references below.

    The tribes of Israel divided the “promised land” by “casting lots.” (Num. 26:52-56; 33:54; 36:1-2; Joshua 13:6; 14:1-2; 15:1; 16:1; 17:1-2,14-17; 18:6-11; chapters 19,21,22,23; Isa. 34:17; Ezk. 45:1; 47:22; 48:29)

    Hebrew kings were chosen and tactical decisions in battle were decided by “lot.” (1 Sam. 10:20-23; 14:41-42; Judges 20:9)

    Also chosen by “lot” were “governors” for each “ward,” and for the house of God. (1 Chron. 24:5-7,31; 25:8-9; 26:14-16)

    Saul, by drawing lots, found that his son Jonathan had eaten honey (1 Kings 14:58)

    Jonah, when fleeing from the face of the Lord, was discovered and thrown into the sea by lot (Jonah 1:7)

    People were chosen to receive special favors by lot (Lev. 16:8-10; Mic. 2:5; Neh. 10:34; 11:1)

    The guilt of people was judged and confirmed by casting lots. (Josh. 7:13-18; the Hebrew word ‘lakad’ translated ‘taken,’ means ‘chosen by lot;’ Jonah 1:7)

    According to the New Testament, Zacharias was chosen by lot to offer incense (Luke 1:9); and after the apostle Judas committed suicide the early church chose between two replacement candidates by lot. (Acts 1:23-26)

    Theologians discussed the practice of “casting lots” for centuries. The Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, quoted several of their views in his Summa Theologica in a “Question” titled, “Whether Divination By Drawing Lots is Unlawful?” He warned that the practice of casting lots could be relied on too heavily, thus “tempting God;” or, demons might interfere with the outcome if the lots were cast without prior prayer. He found the casting of lots to be lawful in cases where making choices was especially difficult and when due reverence was observed, “If… there be urgent necessity it is lawful to seek the divine judgment by casting lots, provided due reverence be observed.” See Question 95, Article 8, 2nd Pt of the 2nd Pt of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.SS_Q95_A8.html

    After the rise of Protestant churches, denominations like the Puritans cast lots to determine God’s will–which made them outlaw less serious uses of “dice” in games or gambling because the casting of dies or lots should be reserved only for divining God’s will. Besides the Puritans, the famed Christian Evangelist and founder of Methodism in the 1700s, Rev. John Wesley, justified his actions as being the will of God on the basis of having “cast lots,” a practice which he later renounced. Tunker Baptists (also known as Tumbler Baptists) were another group from the 1700s who “cast lots,” for example, to determine who should be the church administrator. In the 1780s there were also “Sandemanian” Christians (one famous member being the scientist, Joseph Priestly) who “cast lots” to determine God’s will.

    If anyone knows of cases in the twentieth century in which churches have “cast lots” to determine future church locations; church administrators; how best to distribute church funds or determine the salaries of mega-church preachers, please let me know!

    In fact if I had a devout enough faith in the truth of what the Bible said about the casting of lost, I bet I could cast lots to find out whether or not the casting of lots might not be overdue for a bit of a revival among various Bible-based sects. Weirder things have happened, like the arrival of snake handling sects that also drink poison. And speaking of casting lots or dice, Christians continue being scammed by investment “gambles,” it’s called “religious affinity fraud. Or by paying big dollars to tel-evangelists or to their particular denomination, and in effect bet on eternal salvation for themselves and the rest of the world (and if they happen to be fundamentalist Christians, then damned be the rest of the world who doesn’t bet with them).

    By the way, I am seeking moderate Christians to get into some dialogue and debate with Tekton apologetics. The author of that website is an inerrantist, and no “skeptic” can get the owner of that site to even consider the possibility of an error in the Bible. Surely there’s a fellow believer well versed in Biblical studies who can get another fellow Christian to admit there’s at least one error in the Bible? Because skeptics appear relatively useless in this regard when it comes to Tekton apologetics, and this fellow and his website have rec’d a positive blurb from Lee Strobel, the bestselling Evangelical Christian author, who also appears to be an inerrantist or something close to it. Will not a single moderate stand up for his right to consider the Bible critically and question its contents? Or will moderates continue to stand by and allow the fundamentalist rot to continue spoiling the Chrisian soup and embarrass the cause of Christ round the world? Same goes for Muslim moderates afraid to confront the fundamentalists in their realm, though I have a lot more empathy for their decisions to keep their head down, otherwise they’d get chopped off. Christian moderates however are wimps when it comes to writing books that refute inerrancy, except for ones like Dewey M. Beegle perhaps who wrote some interesting challenging works along those lines. If anyone can point me toward more like that, please do!

    Thanks for the “chance” to rant, and toss a whole “lot” at you all.

    Keep up the good moderate work of asking some great questions on your blogs and in the BIBLICAL STUDIES CARNIVAL!

    Sincerely,

    Edward T. Babinski

  8. Matt says:

    Edward-

    Thanks for the comments. Very enlightening stuff on the history of lot-casting.

    I’m seriously fascinated with the way you, Chris, Toby, and Richard have all taken this issue in different directions.

  9. hiutopor says:

    Hi

    Very interesting information! Thanks!

    Bye

  10. Errancy says:

    “Saul, by drawing lots, found that his son Jonathan had eaten honey (1 Kings 14:5)”

    1 Kings 14:5 doesn’t seem to say this. The incident is in 1 Samuel 14:43, but I can’t find it anywhere in 1 Kings; am I not looking in hard enough?

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