Posted by: isaiahsfan | March 28, 2007

Casting Lots

Brass PlatesI’d like to quote liberally from Brant Gardner on the subject of Nephi and his brothers casting lots to see who would be the first to go in and ask Laban for the Brass Plates. 

“While modern people might be familiar with casting lots to create a pure chance selection, it would be a disservice to these brothers to assume that the casting of lots was done to create a random assignment. Casting lots in the ancient world assumed that the randomness inherent in the lots opened the door for God to place His hand in the outcome. The casting of lots was used as a means of discovering the will of the Lord.Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam had been sent on a mission by their father. The mission had been commanded of Lehi in a prophetic vision. Regardless of the feelings that Laman and Lemuel had about their state of affairs in the wilderness, they were familiar with religion, and knew that this was a religiously directed mission. In a more modern story, we might see the four brothers kneeling in prayer to determine who should go to Laban. The casting of lots was essentially the same for them.

Nibley has a fairly long description of ancient divination practices in his Since Cumorah …the casting of lots was an action equivalent to asking the direction of the Lord, which would be consistent with the religious purpose of this quest into Jerusalem…

 The use of the lots to determine who should go up to Laban now raises another question. If the Lord did have a hand in the selection, why was Laman chosen instead of Nephi? Clearly the Lord knew that Nephi would be the successful one. Why was Laman allowed to fail?

There are two issues here. The first is why might Laman be allowed to fail, and the second was why Laman was chosen instead of Nephi. Laman was allowed to fail for the same reason that all of us are allowed to fail at various tasks in this life. Our Agency places us in a position where we must individually do or fail at any number of tasks. Opportunities are placed before us, and we will succeed or not depending upon our developed abilities to handle each situation. There is therefore no surprise that the Lord would allow Laman to fail. In such an important mission, it is likely that the Lord would not let the mission fail, only one of the men who attempted to carry out the mission. Laman’s eventual failure was personal. The goal of the mission was eventually accomplished.

The next question is why the Lord would put Laman in a position where the Lord knew he would fail. The incident of the retrieval of the brass plates comes directly after Nephi’s epiphany wherein the Lord told Nephi that he would ascend over his brothers. While that had occurred in other occasions (Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all his brethren) it was remarkable in its violation of cultural rules. The eldest brother was the one who should have that role.

The incident with the brass plates is a transitional moment where the change in the leadership hierarchies is being established. The Lord uses this incident to provide justification for the ascendency of Nephi as a leader, a process which continues on their journey through the desert. Laman’s attempt and failure was both a recognition of his birthright, and the marking of the passage of the birthright from the inheritor to the more righteous anointed.”

 I think the points made here are very cogent.  I would add that in several cases in the Old Testament where lots were cast, it was to determine the land inheritances of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, as in Joshua 18.  That seems to fit with the idea of Laman receiving the right of first attempt to recover the brass plates.  The Brass Plates were almost a “birthright” for Lehi and his family, containing as they did his genealogy and instructions that the Lord intended them to have in order to teach their descendants.  Laman, the eldest male, failed in this mission and the leadership of the group passed to Nephi. 

One could question why only one brother had to be chosen to approach Laman, rather than the entire group.  It makes sense that this was the method the Lord used to designate the leadership hierarchy. 



  1. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    I also think that sometimes we are given opportunities to fail as a test to see how we will respond. I feel that every day as a mother, actually. It’s one of the things that was hardest for me with motherhood. I came into it later than many (most in the Church) and had a successful life in school and my career. To then take on a role where I fail every day, multiple times, has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. And often, I fail the test of failure. But I think little by little, I’m getting better at accepting failure, and trying again. That’s what it’s about, right? And Nephi exemplified this. He would keep trying until they were able to succeed. He wasn’t going to leave until they had fulfilled the commandment. Life is a little less defined, but I think the key is to keep at it, with faith that the Lord will prepare a way somehow, sometime.

  2. M&M–Amen! I’ve heard it said that motherhood is no job for sissies. Thank goodness for heavenly intervention and angels and scriptures.

  3. I believe that the Lord was giving Laman a chance to prove himself. I do not believe that the Lord gives us tests to fail them but to see if we will rise to the occasion, which Laman did not. He had the opportunity to turn to the Lord and humble himself and ask for guidance in this quest but instead tried to handle it in his own way. How many times I have been guilty of that! Maybe it is also a great lesson in magnifying our callings (I do not necessarily mean church) or someone else will have to rise up and take our place. With motherhood, maybe a spouse fills a lot of our responsibilities or another of our children, a teacher or other mentor, etc.

  4. I do not believe that the Lord gives us tests to fail them

    I think there is a slight difference with what I was saying and what you say. I agree that we are given tests to see if we will rise to the occasion, but I also believe that the Lord gives us weakness, which means sometimes we will fail at things, and I think He knows that will happen and makes provision for those weaknesses if and as we turn to Him. If everything we did was always a success, even when we are trying to do what’s right, I’m not sure we would learn endurance, patience, continued trust, etc. The lessons I have learned from my weaknesses have made me a better person, I think…more desirous to trust in the Lord and wait on Him. Success isn’t always measured in mortal ways, ya know?

    I think the Lord is merciful as we are striving. I have a hard time believing that all of motherhood, for example, is going to be about “success” as we might define it. What is “success” is turning to the Lord as we go, and repenting when we don’t. My experience is that my motherhood is as much about my growth as it is about my children’s.

    I also wonder about someone having to rise up and take our place vs. the Lord making up the difference when we are doing our best. I suspect a lot has to do with our hearts and efforts and desires. And sometimes I think He helps us through other people, but that isn’t always going to be a condemnation, IMO.

    All in all, I think there are many ways to look at this story. 🙂 One of the things I love about the scriptures is that they can mean different things to different people, perhaps at different times in life, too.

  5. Sorry for the late comment. I’m catching up.

    I enjoyed the post. FYI, I linked to this from
    and I wrote up a few thoughts on this there.

    Also I was thinking about using such a process today for making decisions. What do others think? (Is this too far afield the topic of the post?)

    * In my experience there are plenty of times when the Lord does want us to make a decision. We pray for guidance and don’t get much direction. So we are forced to actually decide and be responsible for it. If instead we had cast lots, we lose this chance for the Lord to ask us to think for ourselves.
    * It is a little too easy. What we lose through the easiness of this is developing our ability to listen to the Lord’s voice.

    * If we need to make a joint decision with someone we disagree with and that person isn’t faithful, casting lots seems like a great choice if they will agree to it. For them it just means deciding arbitrarily, but for us (if we have faith) the Lord’s will gets done. –Is that right?

  6. Interesting, Matthew. Over at the feastupontheword wiki you wrote: “Note though that lots are not always cast to find out the will of the Lord at this time. For example in 1 Ne 16:24 Lehi could have cast lots to determine in what direction Nephi should look for food; but instead, he asked the Lord.”
    But it looks like casting lots, when done righteously, was something done when making a group decision pertaining to splitting things up or deciding which person should be chosen (to speak first D&C 102:12, to be an apostle Acts 1:23, 26, to go confront Laban first 1 Ne 3:11.) I don’t know of it being used when discovering the Lord’s will as an individual. It just seems to have more of a specific application.

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