A Theology of Gambling Part 1 – Lots

Who knows why I found myself in Foxwoods Casino, other than through the urging of my grandparents. They love gambling and they want to share that experience with their grandchildren, so you could view this as a time for bonding. But gambling isn’t much known for that aspect; I’d say the primary reason most people go gambling comes with the hope of winning, a fun past time, or a desperate addiction.

So what, exactly, do they see in the whole deal? I imagine partly it comes down to atmosphere. Foxwoods appears incredibly opulent, with seemingly miles-high ceilings and marble that stretches miles across. If I had to peg the feel it often exudes, “miniature city” seems appropriate; my father assure me, as we grab breakfast at bakery hidden in the halls, that on a Friday night these barren halls will fill up completely. I don’t find that hard to believe when I take a look in the actual gambling rooms.

We could call them “workmanlike”, at the very least. Outside, Foxwoods blindsides you via its external appearance; within its central focusing iris, however, ostentatious decoration gives way to rows and rows of slot machines, betting tables, and dealers waiting to deprive you of your money and/or time. And yet, people keep throwing money for some reason. There is a pull, an allure, to the travel, to the decadence on display at some level, and just the loads of restaurants, hotel rooms, bars, and shops all eager to provide you with an aesthetic complement. And yet, you really need to spend your time gambling (or drinking, take your pick) to really enjoy yourself.

I still don’t understand my grandparents, but I guess that means I don’t understand most of the gambling population either. What would bring you to the slot again and again, pulling the lever in a carpal-tunnel inducing rigor for hours on end? I can’t attribute this solely to addiction, mostly because the people I know who gamble aren’t addicted. They budget their money (MOSTLY), play up to that budget, and then leave. You have good days and bad days; this was one of the bad days, but that doesn’t mean they kept going. My grandparents cut their losses and they were fine with that loss.

This made me insanely curious about the appeal of said games. What makes them tick? How long have people been playing casino games with such fervor? At base, gambling games are games; just games that put real currency, “value”, on the line with every attempt. As such, they fall under the theological purview of this website. I even remember playing Vegas Stakes on the SNES (no surprise that my grandfather had a copy), and my brother found optimal strategies even in that relatively primitive system. You are always playing a game with a tangible, quantificable reward – how much money will I obtain? – but the techniques vary wildly. People play gambling games professionally (I shouldn’t need to point out Texas Hold’Em, right?), and there’s certainly some skill to be had in these games if you take the time.

Sheep Knuckle Lots_filtered

Might be lots, who knows for sure?

Lots

We begin, then, with some Biblical history regarding this whole “gambling” enterprise. What does the Bible actually say about gambling? Not much, really! In fact, it does not specifically reference or say “do not gamble!” in a simple way that you would expect. Rather, we can construct a Biblical perspective out of a multitude in this vast library.

First of all, then, the Bible contains a similar analogue to gambling known as lots. If you ever read any part of the Bible, Old or New, you probably came across the lots and had no idea what they were, their function, or why Israelites continued to whip them out for any number of various functions. I certainly didn’t until long after I had become a Christian, but they turn into a very peculiar concept once you bother to look them up.

To forgo delaying any long, “lots” as we see in the Bible are fundamentally unknown as to what they looked like or what “casting lots” even means. We often think of them as a modern-day analogue to dice, but “casting lots” could mean any number of things – we just lack the ancient context to know. Rabbis usually associated them with 1 Samuel 14, where Saul uses lots to determine God’s will:

36 Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and take spoil among them until the morning light, and let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good [m]to you.” So the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.”37 Saul inquired of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will You give them into the hand of Israel?” But He did not answer him on that day. 38 Saul said, “Draw near here, all you [n]chiefs of the people, and investigate and see how this sin has happened today.39 For as the Lord lives, who delivers Israel, though it is in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But not one of all the people answered him. 40 Then he said to all Israel, “You shall be on one side and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good [o]to you.” 41 Therefore, Saul said to the Lord, the God of Israel, “Give a perfect lot.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.42 Saul said, “Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son.” And Jonathan was taken.

In this particular situation, the Israelites use lots to separate people and find the sin in their midst. Depending on the casting of the lot, they would find themselves separated into smaller groups until they found the true culprit. We can think of lots, then, as a form of divination used to cast an impartial judgment on a situation. Since we know from Jeremiah 17:9 that we cannot trust the human heart in divine matters, it makes sense to cast an objective judge onto the situation, hoping God will let the lots fall as they should to arrive at the correct decision. The Septuagint describe the lots as two in number – the urim and the thummin – which rabbis and Josephus extrapolated into a larger theory associating lots with the Levtitical priesthood. Whether or not that’s the case remains a matter of opinion.

Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.