What is a Lottery?

A competition based on chance, in which numbered tickets are drawn for prizes; especially one organized as a public service. The word is believed to be derived from the Middle Dutch loterie, or its French equivalent, loterie, which in turn derives from the Latin Lotere, “action of drawing lots.”

The use of lottery procedures to distribute goods and services has long been common. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by lottery during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were brought to the United States by British colonists, and though they generated much criticism (especially from Christians), they contributed a large portion of funds for such projects as the building of the British Museum and the construction of bridges.

Often the prize in a lottery is money, but it can also be merchandise or services. When there is a high demand for something that is limited, a lottery can be run to make the process fair for all those who want it. Examples include a lottery for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable school.

While the actual odds do make a difference, if the entertainment value of a lottery ticket is high enough for an individual, the disutility of monetary loss will be outweighed by the expected utility, and the purchase will be a rational decision for that person. However, the Bible forbids covetousness and warns that “there is no such thing as a sure thing” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

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