A Theology of Backgammon

by | May 30, 2021 | Devotional

Ever play backgammon before? You know the game that folds up into a handy little briefcase? It has all the points on the board, and the checkers, and the dice.  It’s a popular game in our house. It’s my favorite game.

I’m no master or anything. I haven’t studied the game much. But I do know enough to know there’s a classic book on strategy called: Backgammon, The Cruelest Game: The Art of Winning. The backgammon expert who wrote this book knew what everyone who had played backgammon knows. It can be a cruel game. One minute, everything is going your way and the next minute your opponent gets just the perfect roll of the dice and the tables have turned. And I was thinking about this as I recently read one of my favorite verses— Proverbs 16:33. It states:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

You probably know what casting lots is. We can’t be 100% sure how it worked. Perhaps it involved shaking marked stones in a container and casting them to reveal the decision. We have the detail here in Prov. 16:33 that it was cast into a person’s lap, where they would have a fold in their robe when they sat down. And the lot was used to make decisions.

God commanded Israel to cast lots on the Day of Atonement to decide which of two goats is sacrificed and which is sent out into the wilderness (Lev. 16:5–10). When Joshua was dividing up the Promised Land for the people of Israel, lots were cast to decide who got what land. When Israel wanted a king, casting lots was involved in the selection of Saul as king. And remember when The Apostles used lots after praying to determine who would replace Judas?

In Proverbs 18 it talks about how the lot came in handy to settle disagreements.

The lot puts an end to quarrels and decides between powerful contenders (Prov 18:18). 

These days we might draw straws, or flip a coin to decide, or even play “Paper, Scissors, Rock” with someone to make a decision. Dice, like you would use in backgammon, are even a good modern comparison.

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” This verse is saying that all the decisions of that lot are from the Lord. No matter how that lot landed, it was from the Lord. And the beauty of this verse is that it fits in with what Scripture tells us of God’s sovereign control. He is in control of every detail from the tiniest detail to the largest from the casting of the lot to the motion of planets, moons, and stars.

This chapter of Proverbs actually says a lot about God’s sovereign control. Verses 1–3 teach us that God has allowed us to plan what we want in our hearts, but when it comes to what we say and do—God is in control. And then verse 9 tells us again that we can plan our ways, but it’s God who establishes our steps. Here’s how it reads:

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. 

The Lord sovereignly brings the plans in our heart to fruition as He so ordains. Even when it comes down to the decision made by casting a lot—that deciding comes from the Lord. Even the winning numbers for the lottery are decided by God, if you think about it.

And speaking of gambling, 40 years ago this past March, a man named Ted Barr was checking out of a Marriott Hotel in Portland after running a backgammon tournament when two undercover police officers arrested him. He was charged with promoting gambling. And what followed was a fascinating battle in the courtroom over the question of whether backgammon was a game of chance or a game of skill.

In the eyes of the law, if backgammon was a game of chance, Ted Barr was guilty of illegal gambling. If it was a game of skill, he was innocent. Expert witnesses gave testimony. And one such expert explained to the court that every turn is actually two moves. One is chance—the roll of the dice. The other is skill—how you choose to move your checker based on all your available options (source).

But, theologically speaking, and what other way is there to speak? God is sovereign over both, isn’t He? The outcome of the dice and every other of the zillions of events in the universe are under God’s control. This is the doctrine of providence. God wisely governs, ordains, and controls everything. The events of your life, your election to be a child of God, to the seemingly random toss of the dice in a board game. And then a backgammon player’s choice on how to move, God is sovereign over that too. Proverbs 16:9.

These verses in Proverbs teach us that God is sovereign. And that’s encouraging. That’s a relief. We aren’t subject to cruel fate and blind chance. These verses assure us of that and encourage us. But they should also encourage us when it comes to God’s direction. God does direct us.

The lot was used to make decisions. When you read the New Testament, you can see that the lot isn’t mentioned after Pentecost. After the Holy Spirit indwells believers, you don’t see them making decisions by casting lots. And most Christians today aren’t making decisions by casting lots. We have the complete canon of Scripture. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us as we apply the principles of Scripture. We may not be casting lots to discover God’s direction. But God is still directing us. We can make whatever plans we want in our heart. We can decide whatever we want. But it’s our sovereign Lord directing our steps.

So, in your decisions, ask God for guidance. Ask Him for wisdom to apply the principles of His Word to your decisions. And then trust His direction.

He is in control. He’s sovereign. He’s infinitely wise. You can trust him. We know God is sovereign over every facet of our existence from how a dice lands in a game of backgammon to His purpose for your life.

God is working all things for good for those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). And that’s a wonderful encouragement to all of us as love and serve the Lord Jesus, living according to God’s perfect plan.

 

 

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Associate Pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.

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Brent Niedergall