In a previous post, Games in the Ancient Near East, I mentioned that games developed in Egypt and in Mesopotamia and that these games were played primarily by the elite and the more affluent citizens.
As for games in the Bible, not much has been published on this topic. An excellent article was written by Diane Cross and published in the Holman Bible Dictionary. The article is freely available online. Below is an excerpt taken from the article:
Although the Bible contains references to sports (2 Samuel 2:14-16) along with allusions to children’s entertainment (Isaiah 11:8; Zechariah 8:5), it is silent as to the nature of these games. Archaeology provides the most valuable information on games and athletics in the ancient world.
Drawings and paintings on tomb and palace walls, sculptures and reliefs, as well as numerous artifacts illustrate recreational activities. Egyptian art depicts a wide variety of contests which required physical effort including water sports, gymnastics, and fencing. Egyptian children played “circling,” a game found drawn with accompanying instructions on the walls of several tombs. Games were also played with hoops, sticks, and other paraphernalia. A scene of children riding a mock chariot or go-cart decorates a Greek jug from about 500 B.C. Classical Greeks often turned a drinking party into lighter amusement, a game of “kottabos.”
Board Games Over 4000 years old, board games were common throughout the Middle East. Moves and captures common to most board games were carried out on specifically designed surfaces, usually a series of connecting squares or cells. Game pieces moved from one square to another according to certain rules which are still unknown. A throw of dice, knucklebones, or even heelbones (lots) determined play. In the Old Testament, lots decided things such as slave allotments (Nahum 3:10), apportionment of land (Joshua 18:6), and care of the Temple (Nehemiah 10:34; 1 Chronicles 24:5). Their use of dice or “lots” gradually extended to gambling, then to simple table games. Soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garment at the crucifixion (John 19:24). The knucklebones of sheep were specially suited to deciding lots since they could fall in only four positions. Dice eventually replaced knucklebones. Examples of dice have been found together with gameboards in tombs where they were placed for use in the afterlife. Sometimes lots were cast with ostraca (broken pieces of pottery).
The oldest surviving game board was discovered in Egypt. Made of clay and divided into squares, it has eleven cone-shaped playing pieces, all dated before 4000 B.C. Another game commonly referred to as “hounds and jackals” was played throughout the Fertile Crescent (Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys with intervening land). Numerous fragments have been found.
Its pegged playing pieces, carved with the likenesses of jackals and dogs, fit into holes in the board. A beautifully preserved example from Thebes has ivory playing pieces and three knucklebones with it. Several boards for this game were also found in Assyria. Drawn on stone slabs, some have an inscription bearing the name of the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.).
In the royal graves at Ur, four boards from about 2500 B.C. were uncovered, each a box with a surface of inlaid shells and stones forming a twenty-square pattern. Drawers in the boxes held three four-sided lots and the pieces, seven for each board. A board with a similar design was found in Knossos, Crete.
To read the article in its entirety, click here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary