What is a Lottery?


In a lottery, prizes (money or goods) are allocated by chance. In modern times, many governments run public lotteries to raise money for various projects. Privately organized lotteries are also common, especially in the United States, where people can buy tickets to win big cash prizes, or even cars, houses, and vacations. The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”), and comes from the Old French verb loterie, meaning to draw lots. The first written reference to a lottery is found in the Chinese Book of Songs, dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. The oldest known signs of a lottery are keno slips from the Han Dynasty, between 205 and 187 BC.

The term “lottery” can be used to refer to any number-generating procedure, though it is most commonly associated with the drawing of lots for a prize. Modern lotteries are usually gambling games in which participants purchase a ticket for a chance to win a prize, but they can also be applied to other arrangements that use random processes to distribute goods or services. Examples include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random process, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters.

People are often lured into playing the lottery by promises that their lives will be better if they could just hit the jackpot. This is a form of covetousness, which the Bible forbids: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to him” (Exodus 20:17).

Lotteries have been around since antiquity and are still widely used in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the early American colonies, public lotteries were established to finance roads, libraries, churches, canals, colleges, and more. Privately-organized lotteries were also popular, and helped to fund the founding of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Union, King’s College (now Columbia), Brown, and other universities.

Most Americans play the lottery at least once in their lives, but only about 50 percent of players ever win. Most winners come from a player base that is disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. These players are likely buying a single ticket to try to win the Powerball, and are irrationally betting their money on long odds. State lotteries rely on this type of gambler to make their profits, and as such, the lottery is a very dangerous game.