Q&A: Tattoos
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Reformed Practice - Modesty and Dress

Question: My husband and I are trying to find out what the biblical view of tattooing is. Could you please help us out with clarifying the text in Leviticus regarding them? Some info we've read states that when Jesus died the OT laws regarding some Jewish traditions were done away with, allowing them to wear mixed fibers in clothing and have tattoos as forbidden previously.


Answer:

Hi Sally,

The verse in Leviticus 19:28 is clear.  I would agree with Matthew Henry that many of the commandments in this chapter are not ceremonial or social but applications of the moral laws and therefore permanent.   Especially consider the verses around the one on cutting the flesh and tattoos, you cannot simply lift out vs. 28 and claim that this one isn’t applicable any more in the NT times.   Observe that vs. 28 is in connection with enchantments, observing of (astrological) times;  the rounding of corners of the beard was in connection with idolatry.  In vs. 28 the Lord is still dealing with practices which were very common in the surrounding nations.

The “making of any cuttings in your flesh” was clearly associated with the dead.   Blood letting was a common ritual to unleash the demonic and supernatural powers.  Because the Lord says that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11) therefore blood remains highly valued in the occult world as a power source.  As the Scripture next moves to tattoos, the implication is that tattoos may also be connected to the evil practices in connection with paganism.  Every historian will trace tattoos to religious paganism.  Even today tattoos are heavily found in idolatrous people and always in connection with false religions.   Undoubtedly because of that association with heathenism and devil worship God forbade tattoos to put on the bodies of His people.   To enforce the obedience God added the words, “I am the LORD.”

Did you know that even today, the most common theme in tattoos is death.   The symbols of the skulls, snakes, demons, spiders and spider web, flames and fire are the most popular symbols.

The argument is sometimes raised that tattoos are only forbidden if associated with death or religious themes.  Non-religious tattoos are falling under this category, such as flowers, names and other rather innocent pictures.  My conviction, however, is that Lev. 19:28 does forbid any tattoo.  If you read the verse then you notice that God connects the cutting of the flesh “for the dead” but He doesn’t limit tattoos to that but simply states “nor print any marks upon you.”  He doesn’t limit it to association with the dead but extends it as a general principle.   Unger remarked that in Lev. 19:28 there are two prohibitions regarding the disfiguring of the body.  The latter refers to tattooing and has no reference to idolatrous usages but is intended to inculcate a proper reverence for God’s creation.  I agree with that position even though many tattoos have religious connotations.

Another argument is raised by quoting Is. 44:5 and Ezek. 9:4.  It seems that God there speaks about “marks on the body.”  However, the examination of the original Hebrew reveals that in neither verse tattooing is meant.  The word “printing any marks” in Lev. 19:18 is the Hebrew word “k’thoveth qa’aqa” which literally means writing that is stuck in.  Tattooing is done by sticking needles into your skin and inserting ink.  In Is. 44:5 the Hebrew is “yichtov” which means will write like someone who signs a contract.  In Ezek. 9:4 the Hebrew for mark is “tav” which means writing a mark with ink.  So neither Isaiah nor Ezekiel is referring to tattoos.

There is another element to consider.  God knew what the medical dangers of tattoos were.  We didn’t know this till about 3500 years later!  But do you know that tattoos have been proven to increase the risks of Hepatisis B & C, tetanus and HIV and even various sexually transmitted diseases.  Even in today’s modern tattooing places, the risks of contracting infectious diseases is significant.  The ultra liberal city of New York banned all tattooing from their city from 1961-1997 for that reason!  The Red Cross will not accept your blood as a donation for 12 months after you have received a tattoo.  Their guidelines state, “Wait 12 months after a tattoo.  This requirement is related to concerns about hepatitis.”   The Red Cross knows that there are very few strict guidelines and no supervision on commercial tattooist about sterilization of the equipment they use.  Those dangers of infections were of course many times more in the days of Moses.  So besides God’s intention to keep us from associating ourselves with the culture of death, occult, demonic powers, He also wanted to protect His people Israel from all the possible sicknesses they could bring upon themselves.   How good is the LORD!

Lastly,  over 50 % of all those who received a tattoo regret.  Among those who are married, that is 70 %.  The cost to remove a tattoo are nearly prohibitive with the result that many people walk with the visible reminder of their backsliding and disobedience the rest of their life.

An excellent website to check out is  www.biblebelievers.com/watkins tattoo/bible.htm

I hope this will help you know that tattoos is not something a Christian should place on his or her body.  Our bodies were and are to be a “temple of the Holy Ghost.”  In that light we are to treat it like His temple.

Warmly,

Pastor Arnoud Vergunst

Rev. A Vergunst is the pastor of The Reformed Congregation of Carlton, New Zealand.  He answers questions on his church's website, www.rcnz.org.