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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
I. Among the Israelites. The Jews were essentially a serious people. What in other nations developed into play and games of various kinds, had with them a seriously practical and often a religious character. Their dances were a common form of religious exercise, which might indeed degenerate into disorderly or unseemly behaviour, but were only exceptionally a source of healthy social amusement ( Psalms 150:4 , Exodus 32:6; Exo 32:19 , 2 Samuel 6:14 ff., Jeremiah 31:4 , Ecclesiastes 3:4 ). Music , again was especially associated with sacred song. Its secular use was condemned by Isaiah as a sign of extravagant luxury ( Isaiah 5:12 ). Lots and the like were used as a means of ascertaining the Divine will, not for amusement or profit. Even what with children might be called games of ‘make believe’ became with some of the prophets vehicles of religious instruction. The symbolic object-lessons of Ezekiel were like children’s toys adapted to a religious purpose (see esp. ch. 4). Even this humour of the prophets, striking as it was, was intensely serious: witness the scathing ridicule of PhÅ“nician idolatry by Elijah and Deutero-Isaiah ( 1 Kings 18:27 , Isaiah 44:12-20; Isaiah 46:1-2 ).
It is a matter of some dispute whether manly sports had any place in the social life of the Israelites. There was undoubtedly some sort of training in the use of weapons, particularly the sling (among the Benjamites especially) and the bow , for the purposes of warfare and the chase. We have a definite reference to the custom of practising at a mark in 1 Samuel 20:20; 1 Samuel 20:35 ff., and there are several metaphorical allusions to the same practice ( Job 16:12-13 , Lamentations 3:12 ). Again, it has also been thought that we have in the burdensome stone of Zechariah 12:2 an allusion to a custom of lifting a heavy stone either as a test of strength or as a means of strengthening the muscles; but there is no actual proof that there was any sort of competitive contest in such exercises. It may be suggested, however, on the other hand, that the practice of determining combats by selected champions, one or more, from either side, which we read of in 1 Samuel 17:10 , 2 Samuel 2:13-16 , and the expression used in the latter case, ‘let the young men â€¦ arise and play before us,’ makes it likely that friendly tournaments were not unknown.
Riddle-guessing is the one form of competition of which we have any certain proof. In Judges 14:12-14 the propounding and guessing of riddles as a wager appears as part of the entertainment of a marriage feast. The questions put by the queen of Sheba to Solomon probably belong to the same category ( 1 Kings 10:1; 1 Kings 10:3 ). Indeed, the propounding of ‘dark sayings’ was a common element in proverbial literature ( Psalms 78:2 , Proverbs 1:6 ).
Children’s Games . Games of play are so invariable an element of child life among all peoples, that it hardly needs proof that the Israelites were no exception to the rule. The playing of the boys and girls in the streets of the glorified Jerusalem ( Zechariah 8:6 ) might indeed mean nothing more than kitten play; but fortunately we have in Matthew 11:15 . || Luke 7:31 f. a most interesting allusion to the games (mock-weddings and mock-funerals) played in the market-place in our Lord’s time, as they are played in Palestine at the present day.
We read in 2Ma 4:9-17 how Jason the high priest and the head of the Hellenizing party, having bribed Antiochus Epiphanes with 150 talents of silver, set up ‘a place of exercise’ (gymnasium) for the training up of youths ‘in the practices of the heathen.’ The only game specifically mentioned is the discus. There is also mentioned in 2Ma 4:18 ‘a game’ that was held every fifth year at Tyre evidently an imitation of the Olympic games. Later, Herod the Great appears from Josephus ( Ant. XV. viii. 1) to have provoked a conspiracy of the Jews by building a theatre and an amphitheatre at Jerusalem for the spectacular combats of wild beasts, and to have initiated very splendid games every five years in honour of CÃ¦sar. These included wrestling and chariot races, and competitors were attracted from all countries by the very costly prizes.
II. Games of Greece and Rome. Athletic contests formed a very important feature in the social life of the Greeks. They originated in pre-historic times, and were closely associated with religious worship. Thus the Olympic games were held in honour of Olympian Zeus in connexion with the magnificent temple in Olympia in Elis; the Isthmian games on the Isthmus of Corinth in honour of Poseidon; the Pythian were associated with the worship of the Pythian Apollo at Delphi; the Nemean were celebrated at Nemea, a valley of Argolis, to commemorate the Nemean Zeus. These four games were great Pan-Hellenic festivals, to which crowds came from all parts, not only free-born Greeks, but also foreigners, although the latter, except the Romans in later times, were not allowed to compete. The most important of these games were the Olympic. They were held every four years, and so great was the occasion that from the year b.c. 264 events as far back as 776 were computed by them. The period between one celebration and another was called an Olympiad, and an event was said to have occurred in the 1 JJames 2:1-26 nd, 3rd, or 4th year of such an Olympiad. The Isthmian games, which took place biennially in the first and third year of each Olympiad, seem to have been modelled on very much the same lines as the Olympic. To the Biblical student they have a more direct interest, as it is highly probable that the frequent allusions to such contests by St. Paul (see esp. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ) were due to his personal observation of these games, which must have taken place while he was at Corinth. As, however, our knowledge of the Olympic games, of which several ancient writers have left us particulars, is far more complete, it often happens that the language of St. Paul is more easily illustrated from them. It should be mentioned also in this connexion that besides these four great athletic contests, games of a local character, often in imitation of the Olympic, were held throughout Greece and her colonies in all towns of importance, which had both their stadium and their theatre. The most important of these, from the Biblical student’s point of view, were the games of Ephesus. With these St. Paul was certainly familiar, and, as will be seen below, allusions to games are remarkably frequent in writings connected with Ephesus.
The contests at Olympia included running, boxing, wrestling, chariot races, and other competitions both for men and for youths. The judges, who seem also to have acted as a sort of managing committee, with many dependents, were chosen by lot, one for each division of Elis. They held at once a highly honoured and a very difficult post, and were required to spend ten months in learning the duties of their office. For the last 30 days of this period they were required personally to superintend the training of the athletes who were preparing to compete. In addition to this, the athletes were required to swear before competing that they had spent ten months previously in training. We thus realize the force of such allusions as that of 1 Timothy 4:7-8 , where St. Paul insists on the greater importance of the training unto godliness than that of the body. These facts also add point to the allusions in 2 Timothy 2:5 . An athlete is not crowned unless he contend ‘according to regulation.’ These regulations required the disqualification not only of the disfranchised and criminals, but of those who had not undergone the required training. It is the last to which the passage seems especially to point.
The prize , while it differed in different places, was always a crown of leaves. At Olympia it was made of wild olive; in the Isthmus, in St. Paul’s time, of pine leaves; at Delphi, of ‘laurel’; at Nemea, of parsley. In addition to this, at Olympia, Delphi, and probably elsewhere, the victor had handed to him a palm-branch as a token of victory. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the honour attached to winning the prize in these contests. The victor entered his native city in triumphal procession; he had conferred upon him many privileges and immunities, and his victory was frequently celebrated in verse. His statue might be, and often was, placed in the sacred grove of Elis, and he was looked upon as a public benefactor. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 makes use of the spirit of these contests to illustrate to the Corinthians, to whom it must have specially appealed, the self-denial, the strenuousness, and the glorious issue of the Christian conflict, drawing his metaphorical allusions partly from the foot-race and partly from the boxing and wrestling matches. ‘They do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, as not uncertainly; so fight I, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage,’ etc.
There is a very interesting allusion to the games of Ephesus in 2 Timothy 4:7 ‘I have contended the good contest, I have completed the race â€¦ henceforth is laid up for me the crown of righteousness,’ etc. This stands in striking contrast to Philippians 3:12-16 ‘Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on â€¦ forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ Here again it is the intense eagerness of the athlete that is specially in St. Paul’s mind. We have many other allusions by St. Paul to the foot-race , as in Romans 9:16 , Galatians 2:2; Galatians 5:7 , Philippians 2:16 , Acts 20:24 . These generally refer to the ‘course’ of life and conduct. The last passage, it should be remembered, is addressed to the elders at Ephesus. The full significance of Romans 9:16 is missed unless we realize the intensity of effort required by the racer. The supreme effort of the will is worthless without the grace of God.
We have allusions to the wrestling match certainly in Ephesians 6:12 , where St. Paul speaks of wrestling against spiritual forces, and probably to boxing in Ephesians 4:27 , where ‘giving place’ means giving vantage-ground to the spiritual foe. In connexion with Ephesus we may notice also the allusion in Acts 19:31 to the Asiarchs the officers who superintended the games. The reference to fighting ‘with wild beasts at Ephesus’ in 1 Corinthians 15:32 is probably a metaphorical allusion to such contests as were common afterwards in the Colosseum at Rome, and were, according to Schmitz (see ‘Isthmia’ in Smith’s Dict. of Gr.-Rom. Ant .), probably introduced into the Isthmian games about this time.
Outside St. Paul’s writings there is an important reference to athletic contests in Hebrews 12:1-2 . Here the two points emphasized are: (1) the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Gr. martyres ), whose past achievements are to encourage the Christian combatants for the faith; (2) the self-sacrifice and earnestness needed in running the Christian race. The Christian athlete must lay aside every ‘weight’ every hindrance to his work, just as the runner divested himself of his garments, having previously by hard training got rid of all superfluous flesh, and look only to Christ. Again, in Revelation 7:9 we have in the palms in the hands of the great company of martyrs a very probable reference to the palms given to the successful competitors in the games. Here, again, it should be borne in mind that it was to Ephesus and the surrounding towns, the district of the great Ephesian games, that St. John was writing.
F. H. Woods.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Games'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/g/games.html. 1909.