This is a companian article to my other post "Is it wrong for Christians to get tattoos?"
For most of my Christian life, I've always thought tattoos were generally okay in God’s eyes. I've never really heard a good argument against tattoos based off Leviticus 19:28 or 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, the two verses most often cited in relation to tattoos. But recently, I came across a very strong, biblically sound argument against the practice of getting tattoos. This was the first time I've questioned my previously-held belief.
I am indebted to Dr. Peter Vogt, my Old Testament professor at Bethel Seminary, and his book Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook for his wisdom and insight into understanding Levitical Law. In this book, he uses Lev. 19:28 as case study for how to properly interpret Levitical Law. For more about some general principles for understanding Leviticus, read my other post, “What’s the meaning of Leviticus and what’s its relevance for Christians today?”
Lev. 19:28 reads “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” For this discussion, I’m going to focus on the second half of the verse, which speaks of tattoos. We can save the first part about ritualistic cutting for another day.
Step 1: Determine the Original Purpose of the Law
- Ch. 19 is part of the “Holiness Code”
- It begins with “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy" (v. 2)
- So, the command about tattoos is most likely related to holiness.
- We can understand holiness as being “set apart” for God.
- This is a symbolic law, designed to make the Israelite people stand out from the people around them.
- The command against tattooing oneself is paired with another command about mourning. So, it’s likely that the tattoos are related to mourning as well.
- The Hebrew word for tattoo only appears here in the Old Testament. So, there’s some debate about what it really meant back then.
- It is most likely the cutting of skin and inserting of pigment, roughly similar to what it is today.
- This was most likely done to identify the mourner as “belonging” to a particular god.
Step 2: Articulate the Principles Behind the Law
- The overarching principle of this law is that the Israelites were to be set apart from the people around them.
- The main principle, specific to this law, is that the people of God shouldn’t use external markings to identify themselves as belonging to God. Instead, they were to be identified by the way they lived – in loving community and devotion to God.
Step 3: Identify Ways the Principles Transfers to a Modern Setting
- The two principles listed above are still very relevant for Christians today.
- Christians today should seek to live out their faith primarily through internal transformation, not external markings.
- They should stand out from the people around them through lives marked by love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace, not by ink.
Step 4: Apply Additional Relevant Scripture Passages
- Genesis 1:26-28 describes humans as the pinnacle of God’s creation, created in His image. We are the only thing in all creation that reflects God in this way. As a result, we need to be very careful about anything that could be seen as permanently disfiguring God’s intention in us as His image-bearers.
- 1 Cor. 6:19-20 describes how our body is holy and should be used to honor God. These verses really elevate the status of our physical body from simply a container for our soul to part of devotion to God.
- In this same verse, Paul writes “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” That’s a powerful statement that means our bodies are not ours to do with whatever we please. Our bodies (in addition to our heart, mind, and soul) belong to God to be used for His purposes.
So as I’ve studied these passages, they seem to make a pretty strong case against tattoos as a God-honoring decision for His people. But I’m going to continue to pray for God’s grace, wisdom, and revelation as I work through this one for myself.
- If you want to read a fairly strong Biblical argument in support of tattoos, check out this article on the Religious Tattoos website. It makes some very valid points but also misses the mark in a few spots. Read both, be open to the Holy Spirit, and then decide for yourself.