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Tattoos And Body Art

Leviticus 19:28

You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

You'll note that chapter 19 of Leviticus has a bunch of prohibitions going far beyond tattoos and cutting that we wouldn't dream of adhering to today. Such things as wearing clothing made from mixed fabrics (v19), how and where to harvest crops and proper maintenance for vineyards. Most people who fall into the group "for" tattoos/body art will therefore discount verse 28 as being irrelevant. On the other hand there are a lot of things worth reminding ourselves of too: don't mistreat foreign visitors to your land, look after and respect the elderly of society, don't hate your fellow man and bear grudges. It's far too easy to simply write off a portion of Scripture because we don't like what it is saying - it's the easy way out. The hard thing to do is to get to the bottom of what the verse was saying to its original readers and see if the principles apply today. If not, then there's nothing wrong with ignoring it, as we do with various portions of the Mosaic law.

Modern Bible translations use the word "tattoo" which in our 21st century cultural context means a specific kind of body art - permanent designs made with ink. Some people look at the prohibition against "tattoos", in the English Bibles, and claim that other forms of body art are OK since they're not mentioned. We should never make an argument from silence, especially when the original language of the Old Testament is as rich with meaning as it is in this case. The English translation doesn't convey the broad meaning of the original Hebrew, which is talking of any kind of marking or inscription on the body. Scholars agree, looking at the wider use of the Hebrew words in question, that this encompasses permanent tattoos with ink, temporary henna body art, branding, cutting/piercing and scarification.

We have to ask the question of why, though. Why does God prohibit all of these forms of body art?

Cutting one's body was an expression of both personal grief and sometimes an offering of pain - a proof of devotion - to pagan deities. We see that for instance in 1 Kings 18:28 when Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal. They cut themselves as part of their religious rites. Even today we see cutting and body piercing used in a number of non-Christian religious rites. Some people claim that the pain is a "spiritual experience", even when no deity is specifically invoked.

Cutting the body is also a known side-effect or symptom of depression and mental illness. It's viewed as something of a "release valve" by some. They say that it's a way to express the depth of the depression and a means whereby they can feel something when all else is a crushing numbness. It's not something to be ashamed of - shame only fuels the cycle of self-harm - though it's also not something good to be praised either.

For some, the pain of the body art - be it piercing or tattooing or whatever - provides precisely the same "release" as self-harming. Pain is pain, no matter how it's generated.

One obvious answer to the question of why stands out of the wider context of the ancient body art practises: it was a form of idolatrous worship, something that is condemned over and again throughout the law. The verse in Leviticus 19 could therefore read "Don't worship the pagan gods of your neighbours by marking your body in the same way that they do". This would fit, but I believe there are other equally good reasons for the verse too.

One thing we see through the Old Testament law is God's great concern for the health of the nation of Israel. Doctors have looked back at the law and pointed out all manner of illnesses that are avoided by following the guidelines that God revealed. Even today there are health risks associated with body art. Back in Old Testament times it was even worse. There were no adequate sterilisation practises and health care was primitive at best. So, on purely health grounds a prohibition against body art makes sense. It applies equally well today: don't go getting a tattoo or piercing from an unclean establishment. If in doubt, walk back out. Good body art practitioners will welcome all questions about hygiene and sterilisation procedures from an informed and well prepared person.

We are reminded time and again that God looks at the heart of mankind. He wants our motives to be pure. We are told, for instance, that if we have a grudge against our fellow person, we should leave any gift/offering at the alter and make our attempt to restore the relationship first.

God is concerned about more than health aspects or overt worship of pagan deities. There is the question of why still to answer: why get the art in the first place? Remember, it's permanent, so what reason might one have for permanently marking the body? Common sense argues not to get the names of pets, TV stars, the latest boy-band logo, etc as these things will all pass away. The Bible urges us strongly to concern ourselves with the things that are eternal, with things that are noble and pure. (Philippians 4:8)

Does the body art represent the despair of the current moment? When you look at the artwork, will it represent a high point or a low point in life? If it's done as another "release valve" for the pain it will forever remind you of that pain. Some people therefore argue that body art should only be considered when things are good as a permanent reminder that it is in fact possible to conquer depression (even if just for a season). When or if things turn black again, the art would be a reminder that there is hope.

Whatever the personal reasons one might have for getting some form of body art, other people might not view it in the same light as you. Their reaction might not be as positive as your own. There are cultural associations. What is permissible today might be viewed as wrong tomorrow and vice-versa. The choice of whether to get a tattoo or piercing has to be made with the wider culture in mind: Paul wrotein Romans 14:

Romans 14:20-23

Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Though he addresses the issue of what we eat specifically, the principle still applies especially since he says "or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall" Would the exercise of your own personal freedom (to get tattooed) cause another believer to stumble in their faith?

In Old Testament times, the body art practises left a permanent reminder of the offering to pagan deities. It was a permanent sign to people around you of your own act of rebellion against the law and culture of the day. Today, though body art has largely shaken its association with pagan worship, it still represents rebellion against social norms. Children may rebel against parents and are left with a permanent reminder of the fact. Various sub-cultures within our own mark themselves out using body art of various kinds. For some, it's a rite of passage and a pledge of allegiance to the group.

As Christians we don't live under the Old Testament law. However, we are reminded in passages like Romans 13:1-5 that we are still subject to the laws and authority structures of our day: parents, church, government and so on. The same principle apples: if the body art represents a rebellion against "the system" it runs contrary with what the bible teaches.

It's really important to examine the symbolism of various pieces of artwork too. What does it communicate to the viewer? Art speaks on levels other than the rational/linguistic, so what does the artwork say? What emotional response does it evoke? There's an inherent meaning in artwork, a message, and we need to be mindful of that message. If, say, an American teenager doesn't worship a given tribal deity, why should they want to be tattooed with the tribal design that represents that deity? The art still symbolises what it did in the first place and cannot be divested of that meaning. Something might be aesthetically pleasing, but it can still be wrong.

At the end of the day, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:12, and 10:23-24 that all things are in fact permissible. Not all of them are beneficial or constructive though. What is in the heart matters. If you're seeking whether to get a particular piece of body art, examine three hearts: your own, that of the originator of the design and that of the body art practitioner. Ask yourself what the artwork signifies both in it's original context and to viewers today. What are your own motives, what will it signify and remind you of personally? To what group or subculture are you associating yourself with by taking the piece? Can you live with it for a lifetime?

When it all comes down to it, the choice is your own. If you can satisfy you own mind and conscience that all the guidelines of Scripture have been met and it will be beneficial and constructive to do it, there's nothing to stop you.

Copyright © 2000 Paul Hawke