Does the Bible teach anything about the use of tattoos?


It sure does. Although tattooing our bodies is extremely popular amongst many peoples and even in our Western society, including amongst sailors, marines, teens and others, the Bible clearly prohibits this practice.

Leviticus 19:28 tells us:

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.”

The translation “tattoo” is an accurate rendering of the original Hebrew. The Authorized Version states, “…nor print any marks upon you.” The intended meaning is “tattoo” or “tattoo marks.” The New International Version states, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourself.” The Revised Standard Version states, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” The Revised English Bible states, “You must not gash yourselves in mourning for the dead or tattoo yourselves.” Compare, too, Moffat, the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the Elberfelder Bible.

The Hebrew word, translated as “tattoo,” is “qa’aqa.” Strong defines it under Number 7085 as an “incision” or “gash” or a “mark.” The Interlinear Bible Hebrew-Greek-English edition by Jay P Green Sr uses the word “tattoo” as a literal translation of Strong’s Number 7085.

The Ryrie Study Bible comments on Leviticus 19:28: “Both cutting and tattooing the body were done by the heathen.”

Soncino remarks, “…’nor imprint any marks,’ i.e. tattooing with a needle. The flesh should not have any marks other than the ‘sign of the covenant,’ circumcision.”

Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary has this to say about “tattoos”:

“A permanent mark or design fixed upon the body by a process of picking the skin and inserting an indelible color under the skin. The moral and ceremonial laws of Leviticus declare, ‘You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks upon you,’ (Leviticus 19:28). Any kind of self laceration or marking the body was prohibited amongst the Hebrew people. Such cuttings were associated with pagan cults that tattooed their followers while they mourned the dead.”

The Nelson Study Bible adds, “The human body was designed by God, who intended it to be whole and beautiful. Disfiguring the body dishonored God, in whose image the person was created. Cutting one’s flesh for the dead and tattooing (or perhaps painting) one’s body had religious significance among Israel’s pagan neighbors. In Israel, such practices were signs of rebellion against God.”

Henry’s Commentary points out, “The rites and ceremonies by which they expressed their sorrow at their funerals must not be imitated… They must not make cuts or prints in their flesh for the dead; for the heathen did so to pacify the infernal deities they dreamt of, and to render them propitious to their deceased friends.”

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, has this to say about the subject: “… nor print any marks upon you — by tattooing — imprinting figures or 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 casts of the Hindoos [sic]. 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…”

The Broadman Bible Commentary adds, “The peculiar markings referred to in vv. 27-28 were all customary mourning rites practiced by the ancient world. Their intention was to make the mourner unrecognizable to evil spirits who might hover around a dead person. In Israel such deference to the presence and power of evil spirits was prohibited.”

Some religious people, although they are aware of Leviticus 19:28, nevertheless claim that they tattoo their bodies just for decoration, without thinking about evil spirits, or mourning for any dead person. They feel Leviticus 19:28 only prohibits tattooing in the context of mourning for the dead. We need to realize, however, that tattooing, even if it was originally done for the purpose of expressing sorrow for a dead person, had a somewhat permanent nature — the person would still continue to wear the tattoo long after his mourning for the dead had ceased. It is also important to consider the origin of a certain practice. If tattooing was originally done to placate evil spirits and to mourn for the dead, as most commentaries suggest, and was therefore prohibited, it would still be wrong to carry out such practice today, even if it was done for different motives. For instance, members of God’s Church don’t keep Halloween, because this festival is clearly of a pagan or demonic origin. This fact is not changed by the argument that most people keeping Halloween today don’t do so for the purpose of placating or expelling demons.

In addition, Leviticus 19:28 contains two commandments. The first commandment prohibits cuttings in the flesh for the dead. The second commandment is broader than that. It says, “…and do not tattoo yourselves” (New American Bible). Although tattooing “for the dead” is included, it is not limited to it. According to Leviticus 19:28, all kinds of tattooing are wrong.

We need to realize, too, that tattooing is a form of “mutilation” (compare Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol.21, ed. 1959). A Christian is not to “mutilate” himself, except where it is expressly commanded or impliedly permitted by God, such as in the case of circumcision. A Christian is to take care of his body in a right and cherishing way (Ephesians 5:29). He is to glorify GOD in his body, knowing that his body is the temple or dwelling place of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19-20).

More proof on the background of this now popular activity of tattooing may be found in Deuteronomy 14:1 wherein God strictly forbids pagan practices about cutting or disfiguring oneself. Also, in the account of 1 Kings 18, Elijah confronts the false religious leaders of his day. Verse 28 states: “So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them.” When Jesus confronted demon possessed people, one of the common manifestations was that these people mutilated themselves in destructive ways.

Tattooing has given rise to other forms of body mutilations that often prove to be permanent disfigurations. Right and true worship of God not only avoids these practices, but Christianity is a way of living in which individuals seek to honor God through the kind of obedience that is rooted in love–not body mutilation.

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