By Archie England, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew
What does the Old Testament explicitly say about tattoos?
Archie England responds: Leviticus 19:28 directly forbids body cutting – the incision, cutting, or inscribing of a living body on behalf of the dead.
Several other texts, such as Deuteronomy 14:1, forbid body cutting. Neither gashing/cutting the body nor shaving the head (eyebrows, mustache, beard, and hair) were to be used, specifically “for the dead.” Jeremiah16:7 adds a further prohibition: men shouldn’t “tear” themselves “for the dead.”
What these texts were concerned about was holiness. Those who lived for the dead couldn’t be considered as holy for God. Notice how clearly the next verse communicates this focus: “They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they present the offerings by fire to the LORD, the food of their God; so they shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:2).
Because of the strong association of shaving one’s head with mourning practices, some scholars choose to limit the prohibition of tattoos to funerary rites. This would imply that God’s children were forbidden to walk around with the symbols of death visibly etched upon their bodies. Though a correct injunction, this does not totally satisfy the entire context of Leviticus 19:28. The entire chapter is governed by the theme of holiness, as established in 19:2. Throughout the chapter, the phrase, I am the Lord, concludes each sub-unit or cluster of ideas.
Consequently, the prohibition against cutting one’s flesh occurs in context as the final concern. Likewise prohibited are (1) eating meat with blood still in it, (2) interpreting or relating omens or fortunes, and (3) trimming one’s beard or sideburns.
These four oddly-related prohibitions stress that God’s people must not behave in the same way as those who openly associate with false religions. The God of Israel will not accept followers who come to Him as unholy. God demands holiness. God’s people are bound to higher standards.
Apparently the chief focus of the holiness teachings in the Book of Leviticus is this: When a person enters into a relationship with God, that person’s body belongs to God.
Moreover, God forbids the marking of the human body – which now belongs spiritually to Him – because doing such things in the likeness of the world profanes His Name, as well as our holiness.
Good ideas are not always the best ideas. Christian, don’t profane the vessel that you’ve asked God to cleanse!
Archie England Ph.D. is director of the Baptist College Partnership and is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, occupying the J. Wash Watts Chair of Old Testament and Hebrew at NOBTS.