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. (Lev 19:26-28)

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 Gen 9:4, and again repeated as a specific prohibition to all of God’s people in Lev 17:10. 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 Gen 9:4-17 or by pagan association in Lev 19:26-28 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 (Lev 21:5), 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: Isa 15:2; Jer 9:26; Jer 16:6; Jer 48:37; 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 (Jer 9:25-26. 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 Lev 21:5, Deut 14:1 (where it is directly associated with scalping), and again almost 1,000 years later in Jer 16:6, Jer 41:5 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 Micah 1:16). 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. (Amos 8:10, 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…

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