What is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by a process that relies entirely on chance. Lotteries are popular because people have an inextricable interest in money and the things it can buy. They also are lured by the prospect of winning a large jackpot. However, a major problem with lotteries is that they promote the covetousness of those who participate. The Bible forbids covetousness (Exodus 20:17; 1 Timothy 6:10).

A primary purpose of a lottery is to raise money for public projects or charitable causes. A percentage of the money raised is typically given to the winners. The remaining funds are used to finance the organization and for advertising. A common method of raising the money is to sell tickets, which are often sold at discounted prices or for a percentage of the total prize amount. This method has been used for centuries. During the Roman Empire, lotteries were a popular form of entertainment at dinner parties and were often accompanied by fancy dinnerware. Lotteries became more widespread with the advent of the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress resorted to them to raise funds for the colonial army.

Many state and national lotteries have a long history, dating back to the ancient practice of drawing lots to determine property rights or other matters. The biblical story of Moses instructs him to divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used them to distribute property and slaves. These lotteries eventually found their way to the United States, where they were introduced in 1612.

Today, a lottery is an enormous enterprise that is regulated by federal and state laws. It can have a significant impact on the economy and society as well as on individuals’ lives. Its impact is evident in the huge number of billboards that advertise lottery numbers. However, it is important to understand that there are many other ways to raise money for public projects or charities without resorting to a lottery.

While the story does not explicitly say this, the main theme of “The Lottery” is that humans are weak and can be easily manipulated. The story portrays a community that is accustomed to playing the lottery and has lost its sense of reason. This is portrayed by the banter among the family heads and the old man’s quote of a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.” The story concludes with a twist that reveals the lottery to be just a money-making scheme. It is not meant to be taken seriously, but rather as a short story that presents human weakness and hypocrisy. The author’s choice to use casual references and an atypical setting to portray the lottery highlights these themes. A version of this article appears in print on September 24, 2013, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: “The Lottery.” Copyright 2013 New York Times. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. –Sarah Princy is a contributing writer for WSJ.