As a teenager I was very keen to get a tattoo. Most of the older boys in my village had one or more, and I longed for the day that I’d be old enough to get my own skin inked. Finally, when I was 18, I made my way to Sailor Bill’s—the only tattooist within 100 kilometres. There I stood outside for what must have been half an hour or more, trying to pluck up enough courage to enter the premises and have myself indelibly marked. However, there was one major hurdle—ever since a small child, I’ve been terrified of injections. So the thought of having needles penetrate my skin, not to mention the considerable pain anticipated, kept me from pressing ahead, much to the chagrin of my mates who were egging me on.
Well, some forty years later I have no regrets. More than once I’ve noticed the faded and less impressive images on my pals’ arms, and quietly breathed a sigh of relief. I was that close to doing something that I’d most likely regret in later life.
Of course, that’s not necessarily the case with everyone. Indeed, getting inked no longer carries the social stigma it once did. It’s no longer just criminals, sailors, and rebellious young men who get themselves tattooed. My brother-in-law is currently getting a huge tree tattooed on his back—and he’s in his mid-fifties! Perhaps he’s having some kind of mid-life crisis, or possibly he’s thought long and hard before making such a permanent decision. In any case, he’s certainly not in the minority camp nowadays. Even some of my Christian friends have had their skin tattooed, something that is increasingly common in today’s church. A previous generation typically assumed that such was prohibited by Scripture. After all, in the midst of a passage that includes prohibitions on stealing, lying, taking revenge, prostitution, and witchcraft, Leviticus seems quite categorical: ‘Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves’ (Lev. 19:28 NIV).
However, as others quite correctly point out, there are at least three problems with using this particular verse as such a ‘proof text.’ First of all, there is the immediate context, which may well suggest that this prohibition relates to something more specific than so-called ‘body art’. The preceding injunction seems to be associated with some kind of mourning ritual (‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead’ NIV; cf. Deut 14:1; Jer 16:6; 47:5; 48:37), and this may implicitly be so in the case of this prohibition on ‘tattooing’ also. Understood in this way, the cutting or marking of the flesh refers to a pagan custom practiced by Israel’s neighbours (cf. the self-slashing of the prophets of Baal as they tried to arouse the attention of their ‘sleeping’ deity in 1 Kgs 18:28). Here in Leviticus, it may allude to actions thought to ward off the spirits of the dead. A more precise rendering of the text is as follows: ‘an incision for the soul you must not put in your flesh and an imprint of a tattoo/cut you must not put on you.’ English translations generally understand ‘the soul’ here to refer to that of the dead. Accordingly, both practices here prohibited arguably concern the threat which the dead supposedly posed to the living. In any case, what we have here is probably not a biblical injunction against simply getting a tattoo, but a prohibition on engaging in pagan superstition—whether relating to the Canaanite fertility cult or warding off the spirits of the dead. Thus the first problem with this Levitical injunction relates to its rationale: rather than a blanket ban on tattoos, it most likely alludes to a pagan practice or idea. In other words, a careful reading elevates this text beyond a social taboo to a theological and moral injunction that transcends temporal and cultural boundaries.
The second problem relates to the precise meaning of the terminology employed here. While many English versions use the term ‘tattoo’, the exact meaning of the underlying Hebrew noun is somewhat unclear. It occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, and its derivation is uncertain. Rather than alluding to the use of indelible ink, the phrase used here may simply refer to marking one’s flesh with deep cuts (i.e., ‘do not put the mark of an incision on you’), making it broadly synonymous with the previous injunction. Admittedly, the related verb (the common Hebrew verb meaning ‘to write’) is employed in Isaiah 44:5, where it possibly alludes to the ancient Near Eastern practice of inscribing an owner’s name on the hand of a slave. While some point to the latter text (and Isaiah 49:16) in support of body art, particularly that which identifies a person as a Christian disciple, others rightly object that the language of these two texts is figurative or metaphorical: the people in Isaiah 44:5—whether Gentile proselytes or biological Israelites—are metaphorically depicted as publicly confessing their new-found commitment to the Lord, just as in Isaiah 49:16 the Lord is figuratively expressing his commitment to Zion. Thus, even if Isaiah 44:5 does allude to self-inking, the concept is certainly not intended literally—unlike Leviticus 19:28 where physical cutting or inscribing of some sort is undoubtedly in view. Thus understood, Isaiah 44:5 does not contradict or overrule Leviticus 19:28, however the latter text should be applied.
But perhaps the most obvious objection to formulating a Christian attitude to tattooing on the basis of Leviticus 19:28 concerns the Christian relationship to the OT law. While undeniably the latter (like all Scripture) is written for us, it was not written to us. Rather, the Mosiac law was addressed to God’s old covenant people, and we must therefore be careful not to apply its stipulations naively or selectively to those of us who are ‘not under the law, but under grace’ (Rom 6:14). While it is relatively easy to extract timeless truths about God and his values from the Torah, we must think carefully before taking all the various commands and injunctions of Israel’s covenant code and applying them directly to ourselves. This is something that we, as God new covenant people, understand instinctively, at least to some extent. After all, few of us would think of applying some of the surrounding legislation here in Leviticus 19 to Christian believers. For example, none of us think Leviticus 19:27 prevents Christian men from trimming their sidelocks or their beards, or Leviticus 19:19 proscribes Christian women from wearing mixed fabrics. While the precise rationale for some such OT laws may sometimes be lost on us today, the most important inference to draw from all such material is the importance of God’s people being profoundly distinctive from the surrounding culture. And perhaps that’s the most important question we should really be asking with respect to body art and the like: am I simply wanting to fit in with and conform to the culture around me, or am I seeking to express my spiritual, social and ethical distinctiveness (i.e. holiness) as a disciple of Christ?
As a young man, my main reason for wanting a tattoo was to blend in; yes, I liked the idea of a permanent colourful image on my arm, but mainly because of the kudos I assumed this would bring. Like many adolescents, I simply wanted to conform. I realize, of course, that such is not the case with everyone who decides to get a tattoo. Indeed, in some cases, the very nature of their tattoo (e.g., a biblical text or symbol) is designed to make a bold counter-cultural statement or an undeniable profession of their commitment to God and his word. While we might well debate the pros and cons of getting a tattoo for such a laudable purpose, what we must not do is judge another’s motives—that’s between them and the one who will judge the motives of all our hearts on the last day. As Christian disciples, we do not all share the same attitude to tattoos. Some Christians love them; others hate them. But regardless of our personal stance, the important thing is that in this, as with other such disputable matters, ‘whatever we do, we do it all for the glory of God’ (1 Cor 10:31).
Article by Paul Williamson