Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 19:28 (NLT)]
Since Leviticus 19:28 seems to prohibit tattoos, some people mistakenly believe that that it’s a sin for a Christian to be tattooed. My attention was drawn to this specific verse because a friend’s parents had cautioned him throughout his youth that a tattoo would keep him out of God’s kingdom.
Even though the word “tattoo” appears in most Bible translations of this verse, Scripture makes no specific reference to tattoos as we understand them today—a permanent mark or design on one’s body made by depositing pigment beneath the surface of the skin. The original Hebrew word was kethobeth; appearing just this one time, it appears to mean incised writing. Whether this was a scar from cutting (previously mentioned in this verse), a brand, or a mark using dye is unclear. The English word “tattoo” comes from tatau, tatatau, and similar words found in the tribal cultures of Polynesia and didn’t even enter the English language until 1771 when Captain James Cook (and his freshly tattooed sailors) returned from their first South Pacific voyage. Published in 1611, the King James Bible more correctly translates kethobeth as “mark.” We really don’t know if Leviticus 19:28 was a blanket prohibition of all body markings or just certain types nor do we know if it applied to all circumstances or just specific ones like mourning, idolatry, or blasphemy.
Nevertheless, we’re curious about the various prohibitions in the Mosaic law and often wonder about God’s reasoning behind them. Many laws that seem quite arbitrary, like that in Leviticus 19:28, may well have been to distinguish the Israelites from the pagan customs they left in Egypt and would encounter in Canaan. Archeology indicates that ritualistic cutting was common in the Canaanite, Hittite, and Mesopotamian cultures when mourning the dead or honoring their gods. In their false belief that drawing blood called the attention of the gods, 1 Kings 18 tells us the prophets of Baal, “following their normal custom,” cut themselves with knives and swords “until the blood gushed out!” after they failed to call down fire from heaven.
Since we can’t understand God any better than an ant can understand us, trying to determine His reasoning behind many of the Torah’s laws is an exercise in futility. Moreover, obedience to God’s word isn’t dependent upon our understanding; His laws are to be obeyed simply because He is God and we are not. If the Israelites were presumptuous enough to ask God’s justification for the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, His answer would have been the same one our parents gave us when we whined about curfews, TV time, proper attire, and being nice to our annoying little brother: “Because I said so!” God doesn’t need to justify His reasoning to His children any more than did our parents to us!
Heeding his parents’ caution about tattoos, my friend never got one but his grandchildren have! I assured him that their body ink has no bearing on their final destination. While many of the Old Testament laws are guidelines for knowing how to love God and our neighbor, they are not the standard by which Christians measure their conduct. We wear garments made of two or more kinds of fabric, trim our beards and side burns, consume dairy and meat in the same meal, and eat things like bacon, shrimp, and shellfish—all of which defy the Torah’s laws, yet no one claims any of those things will keep us out of the Kingdom and neither will tattoos!
When Jesus died on the cross, He put an end to the Old Testament law (even the one about body markings). As Christians the only law we are under is that of Christ: to love God with our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves!