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Monday, January 15, 2007

Play in the Bible

Carl Zimmer, an important science writer, recently wrote about the function and origin of play in animals, in Forbes. Since play is rather widely distributed in vertebrates, it must confer some positive benefits. (The article says that reptiles don't play. It doesn't mention fish, but I am not aware of any play behavior in such animals. Many birds and mammals play.) Zimmer supposes that play helps social animals to bond with each other, enables them to sharpen their skills, and to learn about the environment around them. The same is true of humans. A human child, and probably a human adult, who has no time to play, or lives in an environment that doesn't allow it, is seriously handicapped.

So what is play? Zimmer doesn't define it. The Wikipedia article admits that defining play is difficult. The Free Dictionary has many definitions for play, as both a verb and a noun. Let's say that you and I know what it is, and I won't try to define it carefully, either. Play is something like "an amusing diversion, especially for or by children."

I checked the Bible. Most of the occurrences of the word "play" in the ESV, at any rate, do not match the definition above. Several uses are about performing on a musical instrument, and the most common use is some variation of "play the harlot," in Old Testament prophecies about Israel's disloyalty to God.

There are a few times when the Bible uses play, referring to children, and a couple of the references are to animals playing.

In Job 41, God, speaking to Job, refers to children playing, as if it is natural. In Matthew 11:16-17, Jesus refers to children as having playmates. Isaiah's description of the Peaceable Kingdom includes the idea of children playing. Zechariah's vision of the new, restored Jerusalem also mentions children playing. God seems to think that play is natural, and presumably beneficial. Heaven may include play, depending on what aspect of the future Isaiah and Zechariah were describing.

Here is one of the references to animal play:
Psalm 104:25 Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.

(There is an alternate reading of verse 26, but it doesn't change the meaning of play. I don't know what animal Leviathan is, or was, and I don't think anyone else knows for certain, either.)

Here's the other:

Job 40:20, describing the place where Behemoth can be found, says:
20 For the mountains yield food for him
where all the wild beasts play.

(I don't know what Behemoth is, or was, either, but it seems clear that it is some sort of animal.)

I suspect that Zimmer is correct (He isn't the first to have had this idea, of course) that animal play bestows some advantage on the animals. My guess is that God invented the idea of play, as well as inventing laughter, and joy. I can't prove this. C. S. Lewis, among others, supposes, in The Screwtape Letters, that these things are the inventions of God. I think he was right. I think some play is good for us. (Too much isn't, at least for adults.) God must have meant children and animals to play, and, I think, he also meant for adults to amuse themselves and others.

My wife often says of me, even when I am doing something really serious, like writing this blog, that I am "playing at" the computer. Perhaps you are playing at one too, right now. Thanks for playing here. I guess I am bonding, at least a little. Perhaps I'm learning skills, too. Whether or not I am, it can be fun. Thank you, God!

* * * *

Added August 3, 2013: In reading this post, I noted that I didn't refer to the courtship behavior (actual or figurative, or both) described in the Song of Solomon, aka Song of Songs, as a sort of playing. Perhaps it's just as well that I didn't!

Thanks for reading.


Kim Anderson said...

Surely play is practice of some kind - and leave it to God to make it so much fun. But of course, as adults, we must be about actually doing, not merely practicing.

Still there's something about doing in a fun way in imitation of God...hmmm...

Cairyn said...

I play games. Board games, card games, tabletop games, I love them all.
I think that gaming is a valuable skill. It improves communication skills. You learn strategy and coercion and logic. With most games, you learn graceful defeat and joyful winning.
It can be taken to far. I have friends who are a married couple. He loves to game. She's okay with it. He owns nearly 300 different games, hangs out on gaming sites, and is just REALLY into gaming.
He had a once a week game. And a once a month game night party. And then he got a second once a week game. He was invited to a third (On Family Home Evening, no less) and wanted to join. That is when they sat down and talked about it.
He would be happy playing games all the time. She needs him to be a spouse, father, and partner. And that was the moment he realized it would never be enough, he wanted to game all the time.
The best part of this story is that he realized the problem, apologized to his wife, and worked out a gaming schedule with her. He has a game night twice a month, once a month he has the cub scouts over to play, and if I or someone else is over, and the chores are done and the kids in bed, we can play a quick game. And no games outside family on the weekly Family Home Evening!
Games are fun, and you can learn stuff that Psych 101 doesn't teach you, but just like anything, you have to be careful not to become too obsessive and addictive about it. God cautions us on that all over the place.
Play, have fun, and laugh, because God gave us the ability to do just that.

(Also, Dr. LaBar, you were, are, and always will be my absolute favorite professor of all time. Thank you so much for your guidance. --Joy Speelman)

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comments.

Good to hear from you again cairyn/Joy.