Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Exodus 28: God Does Play Dice

Last week was my first "off" week from Eat the Bible in nearly a year.  Are you impressed with my resolve? My consistency? My reliable effort? Me too.

But I've got a great reason for my brief hiatus: I went to Vegas last weekend to relearn all the hard and soft lessons that city has to teach. I relearned that blackjack will kill you. I relearned that basketball games are exponentially more fun to watch when you've got money riding on them.  I relearned that table service is obscenely expensive, and obscenely worth it. I relearned that my body definitely doesn't need eight hours of sleep per night.  And then I relearned that my body absolutely needs eight hours of sleep per night.

Katy Perry (image from
But this year, I also learned something new:

I love craps!  I love the crowd of people.  I love making change with the dealer.  I love the sure weight of clay chips. I love the fleeting feel of the felt. I love the absurd "strategies" that other players use to place their bets.  I love the long wagers.

But most of all, I love throwing the dice. Man, do I love throwing the dice.

Most sane people believe that the dice throw in craps is entirely unpredictable--that an impossible combination of gravity, friction, muscle memory, and momentum delivers results that, from our perspective, can only be random. But it takes all of four seconds at the craps table to see that most players believe they have real power to affect the outcome of each roll. Every veteran player has a unique ritual designed to avoid a seven, or hit the point, or pull a hard eight. (Harper's Magazine ran a fantastic feature on this phenomenon back in 2008.)

I now have one too. I like standing on the flat side of the table, to the left of the croupier. When the stick-man pushes the dice my way, I let them sit on the table for a second.  Then I manipulate each die--one at a time--rotating it until it reads the number I want to roll. Then, keeping those numbers up, I brush the dice in a circle around my pass-line chips--once.  Clockwise or counterclockwise?  It doesn't matter; the universe decides. Then I throw, right-handed, all wrist, lightly--a soft line-drive that falls a foot before the backstop and rebounds near the wall.

It sounds insane, I know. Until you hit a streak. Then it feels like magic. Like voodoo magic. And all of a sudden, I am a voodoo-doctor, a dice-throwing hero, raking in cash not only for myself--indeed, not really for myself at all--but for the dozen screaming initiates around me.

My heart's racing right now even as I write.

But I know what you're thinking.  Why do I tell you my black-arts strategies here, on my Bible blog? Because I'm not the only one who loves craps. With all due respect to Einstein, God loves rolling dice too. Wanna know how I know? Read on, my voodoo babies ...

Roughly the second half of the book of Exodus (chapters 25-40) tells of the construction of the tabernacle in exhaustive detail. After the Israelites escape Egypt, God asks them to build this tabernacle--basically an elaborate tent structure--to house both the ark of the covenant and, by extension, God himself. These chapters are full of detailed ritual prescriptions that outline not only the basic dimensions of the structure, but also the specific responsibilities of the priests who will minister to it.

At the head of the tabernacle's priesthood is Aaron, the brother of Moses. Now, God is a deity en vogue, so he takes two chapters to explain the particular outfit that Aaron should wear when working around the tabernacle (chapters 28-29). The description of the uniform begins with the ephod, a richly adorned apron with gem-encrusted shoulder pieces. (God apparently owns a Bedazzler.)  Over that ephod, the priest wears a similarly ornate breastpiece, woven through with gold, blue, purple, and crimson linens.

And then there's my favorite part: God commands that the low hem of the garment should include a ring of gold bells, specifically so that "its sound shall be heard when [Aaron] goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he may not die" (28:35). Here, God is treating Aaron like a cute little kitty near a garage door.

But God explains the priest's most mysterious accessory in 28:30: "In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummin, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes in before the Lord" (28:30). Biblical scholars are still divided over what the Urim and Thummin are. Some argue that they are small sticks; others that they are black and white stones; others that they are small pebbles.  And others still believe that the Urim and Thummin are, wait for it, dice.

Most all, however, believe that the they are oracular instruments that the tabernacle priests use to divine the Lord's intent--probably by throwing them.

Let that sink in for a second.

Sometimes, instead of talking to God, the priests of Israel roll the dice to find out what God is thinking. And the Urim and Thummin are those dice.

Such ritual gambling happens repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible; it is usually described in the English as "casting lots."  Thus, in Leviticus 16:8, Aaron casts lots to identify the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. In Joshua 18, Joshua casts lots to find out how God wants to divide the land of Israel among the tribes. And in 1 Samuel 28, Saul knows that God is no longer with him because the dice confirm it: "When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets" (28:6). Saul must have crapped out.

Divination using the Urim and Thummin seems to disappear during Israel's monarchical period, but it makes a comeback when the Israelites return to the Land after the exile.  Thus, in Ezra 3:63, "the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult the Urim and the Thummin."

The presence of the Urim and the Thummin in the early books of the Torah always surprises me.  We usually assume that early in the Bible, God is intimately close with his people. However, the notion that the first priests of Yahweh have to cast lots to discern his intent suggests that even in the Bible's second book, He has begun his inexorable progress upwards into the unreachable heavens, leaving his magic dice behind as a mere trace of his presence.

Now, did I find the Urim and Thummin in Nevada last Thursday?  Absolutely not.  Did I find God in Vegas over the weekend? Unlikely. But do I think He might of cracked a smile when I hit the point for the fourth time in a row?  Maybe.

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