The Bible and Gambling

Practically speaking, the Bible has nothing to say about gambling as we know it, and the only real, practical example of it is that of Roman soldiers gambling for Jesus' robe. But even then there would be a sea of difference between how we regard gambling and how the ancients would have regarded it.

The modern gambler is a person who -- depending upon his poison -- works with a mix of what is generally thought to be random chance and personal gaming skill. Obviously the level of each varies from effort to effort; the roulette wheel takes no skill at all, while poker is more of a level mix.

The chance aspect, however, generally is worked under the assumption that the result could come out any particular way, due to "luck" or "chance" as a nebulous non-force that does the bidding.

Pious gamblers may go as far to claim that God influenced things to make them win (but of course, not to make them or the others lose). And such persons would actually be far closer to an ancient view than a modern one. As Pilch and Malina note in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values [79ff], the ancients believed as a whole in the fixed fate or fortune of each person.

Gambling would then not be a matter of throwing things to chance, but of determining the will of the gods (and in Israel's case, God). This can be seen in that the drawing of lots was used to determine tribal land apportionments (Num. 26:55-56; Josh. 14-21).

One may note at once, beyond the difference in view, that the Israelite practice of drawing lots for land was far from being a comparison to modern gambling. It was not a game in which one person won out while everyone else went home with far less or wearing a barrel. Each participant "won" something of equitable value -- this would be like going to Las Vegas and every slot machine returning a nickel for every nickel put in. The many places he cites where lots are cast in the Bible were all done as a way of determining God's will quickly and easily. No one was risking money or livelihood for the gain of others. Actually, the ancients as a whole were too poor to take such risks, and of course currency was not a primary item of trade for most of them.

Some would add that gambling is contrary to the Bible because it puts faith in chance and fate rather than in the providence of God. I would prefer to appeal to the general Biblical principle of responsible stewardship to argue against gambling. But for our purposes we would only point out that Bible "gambling" was not the limited-sum and uncontrolled game that modern gambling generally is.

I am reminded of a joke a large local church once played on the pastor while he was on vacation, and shortly after the lottery had started in Florida. The church staff had the local paper print a mock-up with a story saying that while the pastor had been gone, the church had used budget money to buy every possible lottery ticket number combination, in order to win a large prize that was then being given. The mock story said that they did not view it as gambling, because they knew they would win no matter what.

The effect is funny, but it does suggest a relevant truth: Gambling is only gambling when someone loses while they are trying to "take advantage" of the non-force of chance,

-JPH