cast lots

    The Greek and Hebrew that is translated as “casting” or “drawing lots” in English is often translated with a specific idiom, such as “to take out bamboo slips” — 掣 籤 chè qiān (in most Mandarin Chinese Bibles), “each to pick-up which is-written (i.e. small sticks inscribed with characters and used as slots)” (Batak Toba), a term for divination by means of reed stalks (Toraja-Sa’dan).

    In some cases a cultural equivalent is not available, or it is felt to be unsuitable in this situation, e.g. in Ekari where “to spin acorns” has the connotation of gambling, one may have to state the fact without mentioning the means, e.g. “it came to him,” (source for this and all above: Reiling / Swellengrebel). In Shipibo-Conibo there was no equivalent for “casting lots” so the translation for Mark 15:24 is descriptive: “they shook little things to decide what each one should take” (source: Nida 1952, p. 47).

    Other solutions include:

    • Purari: “throw shells” (source: David Clark)
    • Kwara’ae (in Acts 1:26) “they played something like dice to find out who of the two God chose (God revealed his will that way)” (source: Carl Gross)
    • Navajo: “draw straws”
    • Yatzachi Zapotec “raffle”
    • Chol “choose by a game” (source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125)
    • Chichimeca-Jonaz: “threw one or two little hard things that had a sign…to see which person it would be”
    • Kekchí: “try with luck”
    • Lalana Chinantec: “there were little things they played with that made evident who it would be who would be lucky”
    • Chuj: “enter luck upon them”
    • Ayutla Mixtec: “put out luck” (Source for this and five above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
    • Lacandon: “play with small stones in order to see who was going to win” (source: B. Moore / G. Turner in Notes on Translation 1967, p. 1ff.)

    In North Alaskan Inupiatun a term for “gambling” is used. The same Inupiatun term is also used in Esther 3:7, “though there winning and losing is not in view, but rather choosing by chance” (source: Robert Bascom)

    The stand-alone term that is translated “lots” in English is translated as “two pieces of potsherd” in Highland Totonac. (Source: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.)

Jonah draws his lot (image)

Hand colored stencil print on momigami by Sadao Watanabe (1968).

Image taken with permission from the SadaoHanga Catalogue where you can find many more images and information about Sadao Watanabe.

For other images of Sadao Watanabe art works in TIPs, see here.

Jonah (image and icon)

Drawing by Ismar David from H. L. Ginsberg 1969. For other images of Ismar David drawings, see here.

Following is a contemporary Coptic Orthodox icon of Jonah.


Orthodox Icons are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are in fact writings of things not of this world. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They can also represent the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and even events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic. This is done so that we can look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event. (Source )

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (Jonah 1:7)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)

The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, the Jarai and the Adamawa Fulfulde translation both use the inclusive pronoun, including everyone on board.

Translation commentary on Jonah 1:7

“At last” (New English Bible) implies an interval of time between verses 6 and 7, but this is not necessary to the narrative. In any event, the scene shifts from the hold, where Jonah was lying, to the sailors on deck. Prayer had so far achieved nothing; perhaps if they could find out who was to blame for the storm, some other remedy might be found. New English Bible and Bible in Basic English follow King James Version in a rather literalistic use of the word “come.” But the Hebrew word is merely an introductory signal to indicate that a suggestion is being put forward (compare 2 Kgs 5.5 King James Version). Often languages use other expressions, such as “Look!” to introduce a proposal for action. Jerusalem Bible with “come on” is certainly more idiomatic than New English Bible.

Because of the shift of location and at least some period of time involved in the transition between verses 6 and 7, it may be important to introduce verse 7 by “Then the sailors said” or “Later, after Jonah had joined them on deck, the sailors said.”

Let’s draw lots. Every culture has its own method of determining who is to be held responsible in a situation such as this; for example, tossing a coin (Winding Quest “let’s toss up”), or drawing straws from a bundle. Jonah’s name was drawn implies a situation where names were written on pieces of wood.

The techniques of divination differ very widely, and therefore expressions related to such methods may be quite diverse; for example, “throw the stones,” “drop the pieces of wood,” or “scatter the feathers.” In some instances the appropriate expression would be “Let us consult the spirits” or “Let us ask the gods.”

In any event, it was believed (compare Prov 16.33) that God, or the gods, would be able to control the “luck of the draw” in such a way as to indicate who is to blame. This represents a somewhat uncommon way of saying in Hebrew “on whose account,” by using a shortened form of the relative particle. The superstitious outlook of the sailors is implied by New English Bible‘s reference to “this bad luck.”

Who is to blame may be rendered in some languages as a causative, for example, “who has caused us to be in such danger” or “who has caused us to almost die.”

The verb did in the clause They did so is a typical substitute verb; that is to say, it substitutes for a verb expression such as draw lots. In other languages, however, it may be necessary to repeat the verb; for example, “they consulted the gods.”

In place of Jonah’s name was drawn, a more typical expression may be “the stick pointed to Jonah,” or “the stone was Jonah’s” (referring to techniques of divination), or “Jonah was named,” or possibly “they learned that it was Jonah.”

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. et al. A Handbook on the Book of Jonah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1978, 1982, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .