A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.
God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.
The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.
The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.
In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!
If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:
- “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
- “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
- “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).
So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.
When was it written?
The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.
As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.
Why was it written?
In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).
The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).
They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.
The Meaning for the Jews
What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).
So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.
Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope
How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws. Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).
The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).
So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).
What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?
The Meaning for Christians
As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.
We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.
The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.
The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).
So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.
The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Lessons For Us
What to know
There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).
What to do
When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
– What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
– What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?