As an older Old Testament professor, occasionally I’ll receive random emails asking for the translation of certain English phrases into Hebrew. When I do, I can typically predict reason for the request:
“I’m thinking about getting a tattoo.”
Tattoos are becoming increasingly common among the younger generation of believers. Some well-intentioned Christians have attempted to buck the trend by mustering biblical texts that seemingly prohibit the practice. The most-commonly cited of these is Leviticus 19:28.
Continuing my list of top five “hard texts” from the Old Testament, the following will consider Leviticus 19:28 to examine what it actually says about tattoos. If you missed my previous post in this series, check out Sun of Righteousness.
Leviticus 19:28 itself seems unambiguous. It reads, “Incisions for the dead you shall not make on your flesh; and tattoo marks you shall not make on yourselves. I am YHWH” (Cribb translation).
“Incisions for the dead you shall not make on your flesh; and tattoo marks you shall not make on yourselves. I am YHWH.”Lev. 19:28 (Cribb translation)
Now, if read in a woodenly, literal manner, the application seems rather straightforward. But in interpreting the Bible, “straightforward” literal readings of the text are not always the right readings. For instance, what would happen if we took Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:29-30 literally? Our churches would be filled with sightless, handless Christians.
To interpret any biblical text correctly, one must interpret it according to its original context. Hear it the way the original Hebrew hearer would hear it. This original meaning is the authoritative meaning. And interpreters must ground any application in this original meaning.
So, what is the original meaning of Leviticus 19:28?
Contextually, Moses delivers these principles found in Leviticus at Mount Sinai in the first year after the exodus. Here, at this holy mountain, God is forming a holy covenant people unto himself. Thus, in essence, the Levitical code is an exposition of the covenant principles given to God’s covenant people.
In my classes, I liken the code to vows taken in a marriage commitment. Just as a husband honors his wife and keeps his marital vows as an expression of his abiding and abundant love for her, so also the Israelites kept the code as an outflow of their exclusive commitment to Yahweh—perhaps best summarized in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. This is not legalism. It is an expression of covenantal love and devotion.
The essence of the Israelites’ expression of covenant commitment is found in the so-called “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17-25. And the central chapter of that Code is Leviticus 19. Here, God exhorts his people to live holy lives, telling them that they should be holy, “for I, YHWH, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The Code concern all aspects of life, demonstrating that all of life—family life, work life, communal life, cultic life—falls under the authority of the divine Sovereign.
But reading the text, one soon discovers that God grounds these admonitions on one fact—He is YHWH (as in v. 28). Since he is the sole covenant Lord, he deserves exclusive covenant loyalty, just as my wife deserves my exclusive love, simply and profoundly because she is my wife.
This admonition against tattoos in verse 28 must be understood first and foremost as a way of expressing covenant fidelity to God by living holy lives—primarily because God is our covenant Lord.So, this admonition against tattoos in verse 28 must be understood first and foremost as a way of expressing covenant fidelity to God by living holy lives—primarily because God is our covenant Lord.
But what does it mean to be holy? Leviticus 20:26 clarifies: “Thus, you shall be holy to me for I, YHWH, am holy, and I have separated you from the peoples so that you would be mine” (Cribb translation again). Here, holiness is equated with two ideas: separation and dedication.
What does this definition mean for Leviticus 19:28? Whatever the text itself admonishes, keeping the admonition must result in both separation from the peoples and dedication to YHWH, as an expression of covenant relationship.
For an Israelite to participate in bodily mutilation (like receiving tattoos) would identify them with the surrounding peoples and their pagan deities. In other words, they would be not separated and not dedicated—“unholy.”
But how does not getting tattoos accomplish this goal for the ancient Israelites? Here, one must understand a little cultural context. Scholars disagree here, but most believe that the prohibited practices were either Canaanite mourning rituals or aspects of the cult of the dead (a form of ancestor worship) or perhaps both. Regardless, for an Israelite to participate in bodily mutilation (like receiving tattoos) would identify them with the surrounding peoples and their pagan deities. In other words, they would be not separated and not dedicated—“unholy.”
What is the application here for modern Christians? Simply, God’s people are not to portray themselves outwardly in a way that identifies with or promotes pagan elements of society. This principle is clearly articulated in the New Testament as well (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)—as are virtually all of the principles found in Leviticus 19. The question is…
In modern, Western culture, do tattoos identify the Christian with pagan elements of society? Probably not.
I’m not sure answer is clear. Surely, if you have a Manson-like swastika tattooed on your forehead, you have seriously compromised your holiness. But what about a “forearm-tat” of a Hebrew word celebrating God’s grace? Probably not.
Now, do not hear me as saying that everyone should go visit the closest ink-shop. I do think that other texts influence such a decision—for example, 1 Corinthians 10:31.
But Leviticus 19:28 should not be used as an exclusive prohibition against tattoos.
Header image adapted from an image provided through creative commons by gudlyf. CC-BY-2.0