Lottery is a form of gambling that gives people the opportunity to buy a prize based on an element of chance. People who play the lottery may covet money or the things that money can purchase, even though God forbids it (Exodus 20:17). Lottery has a lot in common with other forms of gambling, but the difference is that while some gamblers win big, most lose.
The word lottery probably derives from Middle Dutch loterie, a calque on the Latin lotere, “action of drawing lots.” People have been playing the lottery for centuries. It was popular during the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan, and it’s attested in the Bible. During this time, lottery prizes often consisted of fancy dinnerware or other objects. Later, it became a popular party game, especially during the Saturnalia festivities. Lotteries were also used to raise funds for public projects.
At the outset of the Revolutionary War, lottery schemes were used to raise money for the Continental Army. Alexander Hamilton grasped what would be the essence of the lottery, writing that “Everybody… will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain.” The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were held in England in the 1560s, with advertisements using the term loterie appearing two years earlier.
Today, the lottery industry has become more sophisticated. Many of these games feature a large jackpot, and the odds get worse as the jackpot grows. But the most pernicious aspect of this industry is that it encourages a false hope in many people that they will somehow find the money to live the life they dream of. This fantasy reflects the decline, beginning in the nineteen-seventies and accelerating in the nineteen-eighties, in job security, pensions, and health-care coverage for most Americans, as well as the erosion of the long-held national promise that hard work and education will allow them to rise above their parents’ station in life.