FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #6
“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:28
Question: What about tattoos today?
Context: The Book of Leviticus is a summary or compilation of “the commands the Lord gave Moses at Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Leviticus 27:34). They focus particularly on the proper observance of religious rituals around the Tabernacle but also include laws to ensure the ritual purity and holiness of the Children of Israel. The command regarding tattoos is in the section on holiness.
The prohibition against tattoos is placed in the same sentence as the prohibition of cutting your body for the dead. There is historical evidence that cutting the body with a razor in grief was part of the Canaanite religious practice. It reminds me of when Elijah held his contest with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. In order to compel Baal to consume their offering with fire, they “slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed” (1 Kings 18:28).
There is some evidence that suggests tattooing or painting the body was also part of pagan religious rituals perhaps as protection against spirits or as identification with the religious group (John Walton, etc. IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament). The mark meant to identify the Israelites as the people of God was circumcision. To place another mark on their body was to indicate allegiance to another god.
Analysis: The main theme of Leviticus is God’s Holiness. This is the motivation behind the commands: “therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). These laws are examples of how the Children of Israel are to live out this calling.
Remember: being holy is not only being pure; being holy is also being separate and set apart. This helps us to understand some of the laws in Leviticus. Some of the laws will help the Children of Israel be separate by calling them to a new level of righteousness and purity and some of the laws will highlight their separation by calling them to ritual practices that are different from the surrounding culture and remind them of their purity and uniqueness.
Problems: The challenge is to figure out which laws are applicable to us as God’s people today and which were expressions of separation in the culture of the day. This is complicated further because the laws are not grouped. For example, looking at the immediate context of the verse in question, we see it’s surrounded by a command not cut the hair as the sides of our heads or clip the edges of our beards (v.27) – commands we would say are meant to set the children of Israel apart in their context and don’t apply to us – and a command to not force our daughters into prostitution (v.29) – a command we would say applies to all God’s people for all time.
Themes: Remember, the main theme of Leviticus is “be holy, because I am holy.” The specific commands must be understood as they contribute to this theme. In addition, we must remember that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. Therefore, we must try to understand this command through the lens of Jesus’ good news and the grace of God.
Obligations: The over-riding obligation as God’s people is to live our lives a way that reminds us that we are set-apart by God’s grace for God’s purpose and that, as set-apart people, we are separate from the world.
In the New Testament, one of the defining marks of separation is the way we love one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).
What does this have to do with tattoos? I would argue that the prohibition against tattoos was meant to signify the separation of the Children of Israel from the religion and practices of the surrounding culture. Therefore, it is not a sin for a person to get a tattoo today… with one exception: If getting a tattoo violates your own conscience. When it comes to the disputable matter of eating meat in Rome (because it might have been offered to idols), Paul says it is fine to eat, “but whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). I believe the same principle applies: if you have doubts about the holiness of getting a tattoo, you should not get one.
There is one final obligation we must consider: our obligation to one another in God’s family. If the defining characteristic of our uniqueness is to be our love for one another, we must consider how getting a tattoo might affect the people around us. In his instructions to the church in Rome, Paul doesn’t say to stop eating meat if it offends your brother or sister. In fact, he says we should stop judging one another. But we should also not “put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This means that if you think that in any way you might convince someone to get a tattoo whose conscience is telling them it is not holy, that, out of love for that person, you would sacrifice your right to get a tattoo to ensure they do not violate their own conscience.
To be clear: Paul doesn’t say not to eat meat because someone might judge you. He says not to eat meat because you might cause someone to stumble by eating meat themselves. The obligation is to prevent people from violating their own conscience.
Reflections: We have lots of freedoms in Christ. Bruxy Cavey – the teaching pastor at the Meeting House – demonstrated this by having Leviticus 19:28 tattooed on his arm! (see blog here) However, we need to make sure that the exercise of our freedom does not cause our brother or sister to follow us into behaviour that would be harmful to them spiritually or otherwise.
I’m sure you can think of a hundred examples besides getting a tattoo, but let me point out one: the consumption of alcohol. This continues to be a disputable matter for many. As we consider our approach to alcohol consumption, we need to remember that we are called to be holy – does our alcohol consumption reflect the holiness of God? We are also called to love one another – is our alcohol consumption leading others to sin by consuming alcohol against their conscience or by leading them to violate Paul’s prohibition against drunkenness?
Let’s remember that the defining mark of our uniqueness as the people of God is to be our love for each other. Let’s love each other in a way that is holy. This kind of love requires that we stop judging our brothers and sisters for doing things we wouldn’t do when it comes to matters of conscience. It also requires that we sacrifice our own freedom to prevent our brother or sister from stumbling. That kind of love will set us apart more effectively than whether or not we have a tattoo.
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