On Tattoos

Tattoos are all the rage these days. I keep saying that when I get old and retire, I’ll open a tattoo-removal parlor. I’ll make a killing!

Somewhere along the line, we have to ask this: what does the Bible say about tattoos? There is an answer, of course:

[+] You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. ()

Some interesting questions arise: What does this mean? Why does Moses gramatically link cutting with tattooing? And more to the point, what do we do with it?

If your response is “that doesn’t apply – it’s in the Mosaic Covenant”, then you need to sit down and think a little longer. After all, you’d be saying that we can eat flesh with blood, we can tell omens and fortunes, we can cut our hair whatever way we please, we can cut our bodies for the dead and we can get tattoos. I hope we’re not willing to agree to all that, especially since half of them are expressly prohibited elsewhere.

Context Says….

Many are quick to say that the context of this passage is about pagan worship. I think that conclusion is a bit too hasty, because not all these items have direct correlation with pagan worship. In reading some background commentaries on the practices outlined here (Gill, K&D, TSK), I note the common thread here is not pagan worship, but rather, personal disfigurement. Both internally (eating foods not fit for human consumption) and externally (shaving, cutting, tattooing). True, most of these had direct correlation with pagan worship – but not all of them.

Let’s look at each of them individually.

  • The “eating of the flesh with blood” is prohibited to all persons everywhere as per , and again repeated as a specific prohibition to all of God’s people in . Clearly the Bible is of the position that eating blood is not good for any human anywhere. However, commentators (both modern and ancient Jewish commentators) say that Moses seems to be getting at something else. Apparently this blood consumption was a pagan method of divination, whereby the pagans would prophesy by strength of blood. Maimonides said it was thought to give them special connection to demons and special insight. This practice of divination-by-eating-blood shows up again in Scriptures almost 1,000 years later: Ezek 33:25. This view of divination is additionally strengthened by the next line “You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes”.  Just in case we didn’t know, the Old Testament (and New Testament) clearly prohibit fortune telling and divination.
    Point: Whether by association with the eternal covenant of or by pagan association in 8 the prohibition of eating blood applies to all persons everywhere.
  • Rounding the hair on your temples and marring the edges of beards was a way that pagans would honor their gods. (Jarchi, Herodutus and Pliny all refer to this practice among pagans who lived in the region.) This business of trimming temples and beards comes up again (), and again almost 1,000 years later. In these places, the shaving is also associated with lamenting the dead and self-cutting, and not necessarily with religious worship, pagan or otherwise: ; ; ; ; Ezek 7:18; Ezek 44:20. In the places where the Israelites cut their hair to self-identify with the pagans, God was going to destroy them. This condemnation applied to those who trimmed their hair/beards in violation of Leviticus even if they were circumcised of the flesh, but not circumcised of heart (. It’s interesting that in this passage, both types of cuttings are mentioned alongside each other.)
    Point: We are all commanded to be circumcised of heart, and all God-fearing persons are prohibited from identifying with pagan gods. (I doubt anyone today even knows that such trimmings had any pagan associations, but it’s worth mentioning anyway.)
  • Cutting oneself for the dead is closely associated with the previous point because it includes scalping one’s forehead. It’s mentioned again in , (where it is directly associated with scalping), and again almost 1,000 years later in , and 47:5. For the most part, this practice was condemned, even when it was practiced as part of reverence for God. (Yet oddly enough it shows up in a positive light in Is 22:12 and ). Here’s where things get interesting: unlike the previous items, although the pagans practiced it, self-cutting and baldness isn’t always directly association with pagan worship. And oddly enough, the Israelites engaged in the same practices for the express purpose of calling God’s attention to their plight – yet God found their actions offensive. (, Ezek 7:18.) That’s very interesting to me: their motives were right (laments to God, grief poured out to God, etc), but their practices were wrong, and He rejected them for it.
    Point: It would appear that the act of cutting oneself is offensive to God, regardless of any association with pagan worship.
  • Lastly, we come to tattoos. This Levitical prohibition has a few unique differences when compared to the previous prohibitions in this “paragraph”:
    • Unlike the aforementioned prohibitions, tattoos are mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. Personally, I find that odd on several levels, if for no other reason that the fact that many ancient peoples had tattoos.
    • There is no stated or implied reason for prohibiting tattoos. The aforementioned prohibitions were not necessarily associated with pagan activities, so we should ask what -if any- association does Moses have in mind.
    • If we delve into customs of ancient cultures, we see that ancient tattoos are not strictly (or even primarily) part of pagan worship. Sometimes the tattoos were merely for tribal identification. Sometimes they were class and status indications. Sometimes they were fertility charms. Some were for identification of ownership among slaves. Sometimes tattoos were whimsical, sometimes they were religious, and sometimes they were therapeutic (Otzi Man). And even within various cultures, practices differed. In ancient Egypt, for example, tattoos were apparently very rare among the Egyptian upper class, but far more common among the lower class and the slaves.

With this in mind, the prohibition against tattoos becomes all the more peculiar: if the practice was common among the Gentiles, and the reasons for tattoos frequently had nothing to do with pagan practices, why did Moses prohibit it?
And why did he include it in this section?

In answering the second question, it might be important to pause and reflect on what all these prohibitions do have in common. As we can see, they’re not all pagan. But they are all about mutilating the body (whether or not in association with pagan worship). If this assessment is correct, we’re led to a couple of interesting conclusions:

  • God considers tattoos (apparently regardless of the purpose – therapeutic, identification, whimsical, religious) to be undesirable mutilations of the body.
  • And if we’re going to be hermeneutically consistent, I think we need to see this as a black/white proposition where size doesn’t matter. In other words, if we believe the Israelites were prohibited from cutting themselves regardless of the size of the cut, and couldn’t drink blood regardless of the size of the cup, then we should be consistent in our hermeneutics and apply the same rationale to tattoos: size doesn’t matter – they’re all prohibited as mutilations of the body.

With that in hand, our question now turns to the age we find ourselves in: Is it acceptable for God’s people in this dispensation to mutilate their bodies? The context speaks volumes: if it’s wrong for Believers in this age to mutilate themselves by cutting themselves, shouldn’t the same apply to mutilations by tattoos?

And here’s an interesting way of exploring that question, even if it is non-Biblical:

  • For people who don’t mind tattoos, many will get squeamish when they see lots of tattoos. Why? If one is fine, why not 100?
  • And for those who don’t mind 100 tattoos, they get squeamish when those tattoos are on the face. Why? If the shoulder is fine, why not the forehead?

But back to Leviticus..
There also seems to be another pattern at hand:

  • The first two prohibitions (drinking blood, cutting hair) are related to their worship (identifying with pagan gods)
  • The third prohibition (cutting body) is related to social proclamations (proclamations of lament)
  • The last prohibition (tattoos) is about personal statements.

And all of them are prohibited.

I find that very interesting…


26 “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. 27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. (ESV)


But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (ESV)


10 “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. (ESV)


But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (ESV)


26 “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. (ESV)


They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body. (ESV)


He has gone up to the temple, and to Dibon,
to the high places to weep;
over Nebo and over Medeba
Moab wails.
On every head is baldness;
every beard is shorn; (ESV)


26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” (ESV)


Both great and small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them or cut himself or make himself bald for them. (ESV)


37 “For every head is shaved and every beard cut off. On all the hands are gashes, and around the waist is sackcloth. (ESV)


25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh— 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” (ESV)


They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body. (ESV)


14:1 “You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. (ESV)


Both great and small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them or cut himself or make himself bald for them. (ESV)


eighty men arrived from Shechem and Shiloh and Samaria, with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, bringing grain offerings and incense to present at the temple of the Lord. (ESV)


16 Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair,
for the children of your delight;
make yourselves as bald as the eagle,
for they shall go from you into exile. (ESV)


10 I will turn your feasts into mourning
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day. (ESV)

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