I recently received a question about tattoos and Leviticus 19:28. He asked if this prohibition is still in effect.
My response is below:
That’s a great question. As in all scripture, we need to be careful of the context into which the author is writing. In this case we would ask what Moses is referring to in order to understand what he is prohibiting.
“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” (Lev 19:28)
Specifically, it seems that he is referring to a particular practice “for the dead” that was a danger to the Hebrews. Consider the quotes below from a couple different commentaries on the subject:
19:26–31. These prohibitions seem to relate to pagan religious customs which should be avoided, including pagan mourning rites (vv. 27–28), cultic prostitution (v. 29, in contrast with proper worship of the Lord, v. 30), and necromancy (v. 31).
Lindsey, F. D. (1985). Leviticus. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 202). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
nor print any marks upon you—by tattooing, imprinting figures of flowers, leaves, stars, and other fanciful devices on various parts of their person. The impression was made sometimes by means of a hot iron, sometimes by ink or paint, as is done by the Arab females of the present day and the different castes of the Hindus. It is probable that a strong propensity to adopt such marks in honor of some idol gave occasion to the prohibition in this verse; and they were wisely forbidden, for they were signs of apostasy; and, when once made, they were insuperable obstacles to a return. (See allusions to the practice, Is 44:5; Rev 13:17; 14:1).
Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 88). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
It doesn’t seem as though the practice that Moses was prohibiting is the modern practice of body art as it is generally practiced.
Our consideration shouldn’t stop there, however. Consider Paul’s admonition that, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (1 Cor 10:23-24) Paul is speaking of dietary choices, but the principle is clear. Sometimes we should voluntarily limit our freedom for the sake of others.
If you find yourself in a context where tattoos can distract from your service to God or discourage other believers, then it may be unwise to proceed. As an extreme example, consider someone called to serve the elderly in a nursing home. Even if it isn’t a sin, it would certainly be unwise for such a person to get face tattoos! I would encourage you to carefully evaluate the visibility of any body art you may consider, and how it might impact your ability to faithfully serve Christ.
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