“You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.
“If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.
“When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God.
“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.
“Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.
“Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.
“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
“You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.”
- Leviticus 19:19-36
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
- Galatians 5:16-24
I don’t like needles. I know they help save lives in hospitals and doctor’s offices, but I would just as well avoid them if at all possible. I also do not particularly like pain. These things inform my reading of Scripture, so when I come across verses in the Old Testament like Leviticus 19:28 that says, “do not mark your bodies with cuts for the dead or tattoos”, you won’t get any argument from me. However, my understanding God’s Word is rarely most accurate when it is fueled by fear or predispositions. This particular verse is set in the middle of a chapter dealing with instructions on holy living for the Israelites as they set out to start a new community, a new Koinonia, as God’s people. Right along with this rule against tattoos are a series of others – some which I also have no objection, such as no eating blood, and others that do not seem quite as important. The forbidden fruit, for instance…
According to the law of Leviticus, if you plant a fruit tree, you are forbidden to eat its fruit until 3 years have passed, and in the fourth year, before we eat the fruit, we offer it all up as an offering to God. Only after 5 years is it permissible to eat that fruit. Now Bekah and I have not planted any fruit trees, but we did plant a small garden patch this year: tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, and strawberries, and we have no intention of waiting 5 years before enjoying the fruit of that labor. Now, I realize that, with trees, it makes sense to let them grow for awhile before harvesting them as opposed to garden vegetables, but then, vegetables are not really mentioned – which leaves us with a couple choices. Either we can assume that garden vegetables are fine since there is no Scripture regarding them, or we can choose to play it safe and wait 5 years before enjoying our garden.
What about verse 27 that tells us not to “round off the hair on our temples” or trim the edges of our beards? I am pretty sure this would at least put most guys I know in trouble – the same kind of trouble as the tattoo taboo mind you. Perhaps I need to choose my next barber with a bit more care than I have in the past. When confronted with laws like these, that go against the grain of our way of life, we often play the culture card and decide that shaving is acceptable for us because that law was just for Israel, for that specific time. We can look into their history and see that shaving heads and beards were often tied with religious practices, especially among the pagan nations, such as Egypt, and that although it was necessary for them to separate themselves from the pagan nations around them and those specific practices, we live in a different time and place and short hair and shaved faces on men does not mean the same thing today for us as it did for them… therefore it should be allowed. Why not tattoos then? This command is shared with a rule for not cutting marks in your flesh for the dead, as a pagan spiritual practice… why shouldn’t tattoos be allowed as long as they are not done for religious purposes? What is wrong with “I love Mom”, or a tattooed wedding ring, or a cross? Wouldn’t it be perfectly acceptable to tattoo something to remind us of God?
I the midst of similar cultural clashing over Scripture, the Apostle Paul wrote this:
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” – 1 Corinthians 6:12
In other words, check your motive for whatever you are doing. If your conscience is not sure, then don’t do it… but don’t judge others who have clear consciences in what they choose to do. God reserves the right of judgment for Himself.
So God-honoring tattoos are acceptable then? Perhaps. Let me close with one short story. I thought crosses looked cool when I was a teenager, even before I became a Christian, and I wore a necklace with a cross on it for a number of years. After I became a Christian I continued wearing a cross necklace, although the reason had changed. Rather than look impressive, I wanted to remind people of Jesus by wearing it. However, my first week of college I met a fellow classmate who was a Christian but refused to wear crosses or any kind of Christian symbol. He told me his reason was that he wanted people to know He was a Christian by the way he acted, not by what he wore. I put away my own necklace that day and have not looked back. I have very few Christian t-shirts. I have not Christian tattoos (or any tattoos for that matter). Nor do I have Christian bumper stickers on my car. I want people to see Jesus in the way I drive, the way I act, and the way I treat them, not in something worn, painted, or etched into my appearance. It is not that I think those other things are sinful or wrong, it’s that I think they are missing the real “marks” of Christianity. Paul told the Galatians, the real marks of faith in Christ are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You cannot buy any of those things. You can only pray that God will call them out of you so you would live your life in such a way that the world would see them upon you as if they were etched in you in holy ink. The true marks are on the inside, working their way out.