A Pepper Grinder Post

Tattoos

The idea for this blog posting came from my oldest son.  He once told me of a time at the church he attended in Louisville when the church bulletin mentioned that the cover art was created by someone who made tattoos for a living.  The note went on to mention that one of the pastors of the church had been a customer of this tattoo artist and warned readers that if they quoted Leviticus 19:28 to the pastors (forbidding getting tattoos), they would in turn quote Leviticus 19:27 (forbidding cutting the hair on the side of one’s head).

tattoo parlorIn a way, I like what the bulletin said.  It pointed out, in a light-handed way, that if you are going to play the legalism card, you’d better be ready to have it played on you.  There is also a way I don’t like it at all.  Instead of digging in and trying seriously to answer the question of whether and how a passage in the Old Testament applies to us, the writer just threw out a funny one-liner.  It seems to me that the kind of discourse where a jibe that makes the other person look stupid often takes the place of serious argument is all too common in our society.  This is bad enough when it takes place in the political sphere, but seems far worse when we use this technique to talk about the Bible.

Although I will be looking today at the passage I’ve mentioned in Leviticus, my bigger concern is to look at how laws like those in Leviticus apply to Christians nowadays.  Are we obligated to obey these rules?  If not, why are they in our Bibles?  Let’s start by looking at the two verses in question—Leviticus 19:27-28 (my translation).

You shall not cut the hair at the sides of your head, or trim the edges of your beard.
You shall not cut yourself for the dead or get tattoos.  I am Yahweh.

mulletIn a sense, these commands seem very straightforward.  The Israelites had to eschew neatly trimmed hair and beards or even mullets, and instead go with a Duck Dynasty look.  They had to avoid something that sounds like the modern practice of “cutting,” and not darken the door of a tattoo parlor.

On the other hand, we’re left with the confusing question of why God didn’t want them to do these things.  You could make an argument that he might not want them to do something which would injure or permanently “disfigure” the bodies he had created, but why would the God of the universe care if an Israelite dropped in to the local barber for a trim?

Some would argue that this passage is referring to rituals of the Amorites (one of the main people groups inhabiting the Promised Land before the Jews got there).  I think this is very possibly correct.  Certainly cutting oneself for the dead sounds like some type of pagan mourning ritual.  This still leaves many questions unanswered, though, because we can’t be sure if all these practices were part of mourning rites or if only the “cutting” was.  We also know practically nothing about what these rituals involved.

To really understand why God gave these and many of the other commands in Leviticus, we need to step back and take a look at the bigger picture of what God was trying to get his people to do.  Once we understand this, we can start to think about what these commands mean to us.

At first glance, Leviticus seems like a collection of mystifying laws.  It has long and detailed descriptions of exactly how different sacrifices are to be offered and different festivals celebrated.  It talks about how priests are to differentiate between different types of skin ailments and decide if the sufferer is clean and can participate in normal life, or unclean and must be separated from the community.  Leviticus tells what to do if mold is found growing in a house, and it gives a long list of sexual perversions that the Israelites are not to engage in.  It tells how women are to be cleansed from their monthly periods and from the longer period of bleeding after a baby is born.  It also has all sorts of miscellaneous laws, warning about everything from fabrics made with two different types of thread (I knew there was a reason I didn’t like polyester-cotton blends!) to practices such as the ones covered in our passage.

moldy houseSome would say that all God’s laws were founded in good sense.  Contagious skin diseases were a big danger to people in that time and place, hence the need to quarantine people with boils and such.  In a warm climate like the middle-east, pork was more likely to breed dangerous diseases than many other meats, and this is why God commanded the Israelites not to eat it.

There is something appealing about this way of thinking.  Instead of God being someone who issues bizarre decrees, like not planting fields with two types of seeds, for no good reason, it makes him into a kind and rational being who is trying to take care of the Israelites.  If the Israelites had had modern antibiotics and food preservation methods, they wouldn’t have needed to have many of these “funny” laws.

As tidy as this way of thinking may seem, I’m uncomfortable with it for two reasons.

  • It makes God in our image.  Rather than seeing God as infinitely greater and wiser than we are (and thus, often baffling), it makes him into the quintessential modern aid worker.  He is someone who is trying to help the primitive Israelites, even though they don’t understand much of the science behind his wise suggestions.  Instead of the God of the universe, he becomes an omniscient World Health Organization bureaucrat.
  • The Bible doesn’t seem to fit in with the “good sense theory.”  When God DOES mention why he wants the Israelites to do something, it isn’t so they will be healthier.  If he was giving the Israelites these laws to keep them safe and healthy, why wouldn’t he just say so?

So why did God make the rules he did in Leviticus?  To answer this, I read through the book, looking for repeated themes.  Two themes jumped out at me.

  • Purity and Perfection.  Animals offered for sacrifice must be “without blemish.”  The Lord is to be given the best of what we have.  A great deal of time is spent describing how people can stay ritually pure, or be purified if they have become unclean.
  • Holiness.  I actually think this is related to the other theme.  God’s people and the gifts they offer to God need to be pure because he is holy.  I often thought of holiness as being really, really good until I heard a lecture by R.C. Sproul.  Certainly, I think that holiness involves the idea of goodness and purity, but what Sproul pointed out so well was that holiness also involves the idea of “otherness”—of being completely different and separate.

There is a passage in 2 Corinthians 6:16-17 where Paul quotes God as saying

“I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.  Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (NIV)

This is actually a quote from Leviticus! (Leviticus 26:12, from the Greek translation in use at Paul’s time.)  Even though we are created in God’s image, our fallen nature has put us in a position where we are very different from God.  God’s response to this was not to blow everyone away, or just shrug his shoulders and leave us to our own miserable devices, but to choose some people and call them to follow him in being different from the crowd. In the Old Testament, he did this by calling an entire nation to follow him and be separate.

He allowed the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be enslaved in Egypt, but then he miraculously delivered them from their slavery and led them through the desert to the Promised Land.  In doing this, he was actually killing two birds with one stone, because he was also passing judgment on the current inhabitants of the land.  Listen to what God says to Abraham (still called Abram at this point) about inheriting the land of Israel in Genesis 15:16 (NIV):

In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

woman with tattooAt the point where the Israelites took possession of Israel, that full measure had been reached.  And what is it that God REALLY does not want to happen?  He doesn’t want his people to become just like the sinful people he is destroying.  It is because of that desire that he requires his people to be completely different.  Leviticus tells how.

Do the people of the land trim their hair and beards?  Not you!  Do they get a tattoo when someone dies?  Don’t you do that!

Certainly many of the practices God forbade were just plain evil, but I believe some were supposed to serve as constant reminders that the descendants of Israel were different.  He knew that if the Israelites lost sight of their uniqueness, it would not be long before they would be bowing down to Asherah poles and sacrificing their children to Molech (which, sadly, is precisely what happened).

So where does that leave us with the issue of tattoos?  Is it bad for modern-day Christians to get them?  It is very possible that the tattoos spoken of in Leviticus were part of a pagan mourning ritual.  If so, then going down to the local tattoo parlor because you feel like spending the rest of your life with a green butterfly on your ankle is not the same thing at all.

But what if the point of the tattoo prohibition in Leviticus was because God wanted his people to remember that they were different?  I think our call to be different from the rest of the world is something that is still in effect.  On the other hand, it seems that the focus has changed in the New Testament.  When I read the New Testament, I see a group of people who stuck out like sore thumbs in society more because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit than because of the rules they followed.  In a corrupt society, they were honest and faithful.  In a cowed society, they were brave and bold.  In a selfish society, they loved each other selflessly.

Jesus loves me and my tattoosThis sounds like I am putting myself squarely in the “tattoos are OK” camp.  Well, sort of.  While I don’t think that tattoos are forbidden for a Christian, I think we need to ask ourselves why we want to get one.  Are we doing it to fit in or be cool?  If so, we really need to ask ourselves whether we are doing the exact opposite of what God wanted his people to do when they entered the Promised Land.

There is an idea in modern evangelism that the way to reach the lost is to look and sound as much like the people you are trying to reach as possible.  Then, they are supposed to think, “Wow!  Jess is SO cool. Maybe I ought to check out that Christian fellowship thing she goes to.”  I have three problems with this approach.  One is that it fits in so neatly with our very human desires to fit in and be accepted.  A second is that, if God’s concerns about the Israelites were valid, isn’t it possible that our cool friends will influence us, rather than the other way around?  My final concern about the cool evangelism approach is that it just is NOT something I see in the Bible. 

Look at the church in the New Testament.  Did they blend seamlessly into society?  Nope.  They produced STRONG reactions in people.  Some people joined them, some were impressed but scared to join them, and some hated their guts.  What I don’t hear is people thinking that the disciples were just like them, only even cooler.

Now I’m not saying that we should be trying to be odd in the way we dress or talk.  I honestly believe that if we are truly committed to following Christ, we will be odd without even trying. 

So what about tattoos?  If you have them, I certainly don’t think you need to feel bad about it.  If you want to get one, I would make sure you’re doing it for a good reason.  Getting a tattoo to be cool and accepted is not a good reason, even if it’s dressed up in the garb of culturally sensitive evangelization.  Really, though, I don’t think a question like getting or not getting tattoos is all that important.  Much more important is the question of whether we are wholeheartedly following God, even though it will make us stick out much more than the guy who is covered with tattoos from head to toe.

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*Photo Credits: Tattoo parlor by , woman with tattoo by . Jesus Loves Me and My Tattoos photo used courtesy of Elizabeth and Patrick Foss. Elizabeth has an excellent blog called .