Leviticus 19:2 Speak unto all the Congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy….
26 Ye shall not eat anything with the blood: neither shall ye use enchantments, nor practise augury. 27 Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. 28 Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo yourselves: I am Jehovah.
29 Profane not thy daughter, to make her a harlot; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.
I am going to try and make the case that this portion of Leviticus cannot be dismissed out of hand. Some would like to do so simply because it is Old Testament law. Just this morning I viewed a clip on the “Christian Broadcasting Network,” with Pat Robertson answering a question regarding this passage which finds Pat boldly saying, “We’re not under the Old Testament. Leviticus does not apply to Christians.” Those who might want to take the Old Testament seriously are inclined to say about this passage that since the whole hair and beard thing don’t apply therefore the prohibition against scarification or tattooing doesn’t apply.
Another problem we confront in seeking to esteem the ongoing validity of God’s word is conflicting hermeneutics. Some denominations have an emphasis on discontinuity so that much of God’s Old Testament word is seen as automatically void unless repeated in the New Testament, whereas other hermeneutical understandings emphasize continuity so that unless God’s Word in the Old Testament is repudiated in the New Testament that Word remains in force today. Those who believe that the Old Testament case laws, with their general equity application, are still in force are never going to rest comfortably with those who would dismiss God’s earlier word out of hand.
The first thing we must note in this Leviticus passage is that God is giving here instructions for the Hebrew social order. God, being Holy, is forming a Holy community and God is giving instructions to that end. We should all be able to agree that God is still interested in the formation of a Holy community.
God begins by speaking,
Vs. 26a — Ye shall not eat anything with blood
That this remains in force is seen by the Apostle’s communication to the new Gentile believers in Acts 15:20
“19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. “
Vs. 26b — “neither shall ye use enchantments, nor practise augury.”
These were practices of sorcery, occult, or witchcraft. For the community of God to involve themselves in these matters was to make league with God’s ancient enemy, Lucifer. As such these are forbidden to the people of God. I doubt many Christians today would argue that this law is no longer in force. It clearly is an extension of the first Commandment which prohibits have any other gods before God.
The usage of these kinds of occult indicated a trust in man’s ability to manipulate nature by his power. God would have His people trust Him and Him alone when it came to matters of providence.
Vs. 27 — Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.
This verse becomes a bit controversial as we consider whether or not this law is still applicable. It seems what is being gone after here is a prohibition to disfigure one’s hair or beard so that it does not conform naturally to the contour of the head or the face. In other words, in terms of the head, this would be a prohibition against Mohawks or against Tonsures haircuts. In terms of the beard it would be a prohibition against trimming your beard so that it looks like a giant question mark, or so that it looks like a Batman insignia. The Hebrew word “shachath” indicates that the edges of an existing beard on the face are not to be altered. In other words, the hair on the skin of the face is not to be shaped into an unnatural configuration that is inconsistent with the way God shaped us.
I’m not sure why this law would not still apply for those men who have beards.
Some scholars have offered that this passage needs to be read in conjunction with the fact that the reason that God prohibited this among His people is that often the nations surrounding Israel would involve themselves in this kind of practice and by the weird shapes of haircuts and beard-cuts they would be identifying with their pagan gods. Other scholars suggest that this kind of behavior among the pagans was often associated with the grieving of the pagans in the context of the loss of loved ones (cmp. Leviticus 21:1ff).
What seems to be underlying this is the idea of a natural order. God gives men hair and beards and that hair and those beards, which are natural unto men, are to be had as unto God. They were to be worn as God naturally gave it to them, and that is, in the case of hair as the hair fits the head, and in the case of beards, as beard conforms to the contour of the face.
It is interesting that even hairstyle and facial hair fashions are not outside of God’s totalizing law authority. God has a legislating word on these matters. There is nothing here that we should immediately insist is not applicable in our current cultural context. Hair fits the head. A beard naturally extends from the facial contours regardless the length. Rushdoony offers here,
“The relevance of God’s law is a continuing one. Unnatural styles too often warped man’s head and body.”
28a Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead,
Some have noted that the Hebrew word for “flesh” here as reference to the whole person and not merely the body. The thrust of this would be that there are ways that the mind can be scarified via trauma, or perverse reading material of various sorts.
Turning to the body, in the ancient world of animism and superstition this kind of scarification of the body was done in the context of grieving for the dead and was pursued as a kind of honoring for the dead. In my lifetime the women folk of the deceased in Papua New Guinea, for example, would cut off finger ends to show proper grieving for the dead.
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary offers here,
“The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs, in time of bereavement, was universal among the heathen, and it was deemed a becoming mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of propitiatory offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave. The Jews learned this custom in Egypt, and though weaned from it, relapsed in a later and degenerate age into this old superstition (Isa 15:2; Jer 16:6; 41:5).”
Does this still apply to today? Are we still prohibited from this kind of scarification for the dead? Well, nothing in the New Testament repeats this case law requirement so does that mean scarification is permissible for Christians? I believe most Christians would instinctually say, “yes, this law still applies. Christians may not scar themselves for the dead.” Yet, though Christians might agree with that those Christians who would dismiss God’s law would have a hard time justifying their belief that this law remains in force.
Before we get to verse 28b, we should note that so far that what God is doing here is creating a “set apart” (Holy) community (cmp. Leviticus 19:1). The prohibitions given here were all, in one way another, characteristic of the heathen communities surrounding the Hebrew children. All of these prohibitions were to the end that the Hebrews might be a distinct community.
We should note also that this scarification for the dead is making a comeback in the West. Tattoos that tattoos dedicated to the dead are already quite popular among heathens and Christians alike. It isn’t unusual to meet believers who have a deceased relative’s name, or even their portrait on them. I just read an account where a chap tatted himself using his Father’s ashes as ink.
28b — nor tattoo yourselves: I am Jehovah.
God’s people were to have clean skin. This would be in contrast to the heathen nations that surrounded them who often decorated the finished work of God with assorted marring of God’s perfect canvas.
Barnes — Notes on the Bible offers here,
Tattooing was probably practiced in ancient Egypt, as it is now by the lower classes of the modern Egyptians, and was connected with superstitious notions. Any voluntary disfigurement of the person was in itself an outrage upon God’s workmanship, and might well form the subject of a law.
Ah … now the real controversy is afoot given the current popularity of tattoos among even Christian people. These Christian people, who would insist that scarification is not permissible for Christians are likely to be people who insist that tattoos are permissible for Christians. But by what standard? The New Testament, we know, does not speak an explicit prohibition against scarification and so those Christians, who insist that there is likewise no New Testament prohibition against tattooing, are in a pickle. How are they going to teach their children that scarification for the dead is wrong while tattooing is acceptable?
The response might be, “but no one in the West today wants to scarify themselves for the dead.” And my response is, “not yet.”
I think it is clear that this passage wherein God speaks against tattooing remains in force and remains clearly in force for today’s Christians. If the main thrust of what is going on in these individual prohibitions is that God’s people are to be different than the people around them (Holy — cmp. Leviticus 19:1) then that necessity remains today upon God’s people.
What Ellicott offers in his commentary remains just so,
“Nor print any marks upon you.—This, according to the ancient authorities, was effected by making punctures in the skin to impress certain figures or words, and then filling the cut places with stibium, ink, or some other colour. The practice of tattooing prevailed among all nations of antiquity, both among savages and civilised nations, The slave had impressed upon his body the initials of his master, the soldier those of his general, and the worshipper the image of his tutelar deity. To obviate this disfiguration of the body which bore the impress of God’s image, and yet to exhibit the emblem of his creed, the Mosaic Law enacted that the Hebrew should have phylacteries which he is to bind as “a sign” upon his hand, and as “a memorial” between his eyes “that the Lord’s law may be in his mouth” (Exodus 13:9; Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18).”
Of course we no longer use phylacteries because God’s law, in the New Covenant, is written on our hearts but we still retain God’s prohibition to disfigure the body either with scarification or with tatting.
Rushdoony chimes in here also in his commentary on the 6th commandment,
“The body must be used under God and kept for his purposes and is not to be defaced. It is significant that the tattoo mark has an origin in religion, in paganism. It indicated two things in pagan societies: one, that the person was a slave of a particular God. Second, that he was the slave of a particular person. A tattoo is a mark of slavery, and it is ironic that it should become so popular for it has always, until fairly recent times, retained that meaning. And slaves were tattooed. This was until fairly recent times, the means of identification, and still is in some parts of the world. But in bible times not even a slave could be tattooed, he was still God’s before he was mans.”
So, what many Christians are eagerly pursuing by way of cultural popularity was not allowed even among the slaves of God’s people.
A fair reading of the New Testament as read as consistent with the word here in Leviticus offers up the same conclusion.
I Corinthians 6:19 What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you and which ye have from God, and that ye are not your own? 20 For ye are bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
Again, we see in the New Testament that God is concerned with the body. In the context of Corinthians the concern has to do with sexual unions between Christian men and harlots, however the broader contextual concern does not allow us to limit God’s concern with Christian bodies to unlawful unions alone. Our bodies are Temples of God. Just as in the Old Testament God prohibited the bodies of His people being disfigured with tattoos even more in the New and Better covenant are the bodies of God’s people as God’s temple not to be disfigured.
This reasoning is underscored and supported by British Old Testament scholar Dr. Gordon J. Wenham in his commentary on Leviticus
“Man is not to disfigure the divine likeness implanted in him by scarring his body. The external appearance of the people should reflect their internal status as the chosen and holy people of God (Dt. 14:1-2). Paul uses a similar line of argument in I Cor. 6. The body of the believer belongs to Christ, therefore, “glorify God in your body.”
Some might try to argue here that just as the Temple in the OT had beautiful engravings so believers, as God’s temple, can engrave themselves with beautiful tattoos. The problem with this line of reasoning is that God was specific as to what was and was not to be engraved in His Old Testament temple. God’s silence on any engravings upon our bodies, as His temple, should be a silence that silences this type of reasoning.
In future installments we will be considering other aspects of this Tatting issue that is before the Church. For myself, I believe that tatting is a kind of “gateway drug” to other more serious disobedience to God’s explicit word. That some people take the gateway drug but never move on to the use of harder drugs doesn’t mitigate the danger of the gateway drug.