Holman Bible Dictionary


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.

Playing pieces of varying designs as well as game boards of ivory and stone have been discovered at Samaria, Gezer, Megiddo, and other sites in Palestine. Excavations at Debir (tell beit Mirsim) in Southern Palestine unearthed a limestone board with ten glazed playing pieces and an ivory “die.” Boards for a game called “fifty-eight holes” have been found at Megiddo and in Egypt and Mesopotamia as well. Although they differ in shape and in the type of materials used to make them, each has approximately fifty-eight holes spaced around its edges and placed in varying designs across the upper surface. The examples at Megiddo date to about 1300 B.C.

Public Games The four Greek Panhellenic Games were the largest public sports contests in the Near East. Some believe that Paul was a spectator at the Isthmian Games (near Corinth), one of these international spectacles. It is evident that the apostle was familiar with athletics (Galatians 2:2; Philippians 3:13-14; 2 Timothy 2:5; 1 Corinthians 9:25-27). Among the events were the pentathlon (long-jump, javelin and discus throws, running, and wrestling) and chariot races. All races were run on a long track or stadion with pylons at each end. Runners or charioteers rounded the pylons, racing back and forth instead of circling an oval track. The track at Olympia (the largest Panhellenic game) has been excavated, and its starting line was found to have provided space for twenty contestants.

Athletes were rubbed with oil and participated without clothing. Competitive spirit was vigorous, and contests were governed by few rules. Prizes for winners of the Panhellenic Games were simple wreaths of olive, wild celery, laurel, and pine. At Rome, one could see basically these same events until wild beasts were introduced into the arena. Sometimes as many as ten thousand gladiators fought at the Roman games which might last for several weeks. Herod the Great built many amphitheaters in Palestine, including one near Jerusalem where men condemned to death fought with wild animals. Men began preparing for the games as youth in “gymnasia” where facilities for practicing sporting events were provided for both young and old.

The process of hellenization (the forcing of Greek culture on the Jews) brought amphitheaters and gymnasia to Palestine. Orthodox Jews were repelled by nude athletes and games dedicated to Caesar. Trophies of ornamented wood were considered images and thus forbidden. Add to this the cruelty of the games, and it is understandable why devout Jews hated the games.

Diane Cross

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'GAMES'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.