Friday, January 13, 2012

Q & A: Should Christians get tattoos when the Bible says they are bad?

This looks painful (not referring to
 the crown of thorns, but the tattoo),
but I don't know if this is what
 Jesus looked like.
In Leviticus 19:28, Moses wrote the following command of the LORD:  "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD" (ESV).  Two chapters later the idea of making cuts on the body is linked with making bald patches on the head (Leviticus 21:5).  These practices were commonly used by the nations surrounding Israel during times of mourning, and often were associated with invoking the idols worshiped by those nations.  Was Moses laying down a universal principle, or one that only applied the particular context of the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant?

The context of the prohibition (Leviticus 19) involves some other prohibitions that would seem to be timeless, such as not making your daughter become a prostitute, not interpreting omens or telling fortunes .  But it also includes not sowing two kinds of seed in a field, not eating meat with blood in it, not eating fruit off of trees until the fourth year of their planting, and keeping the Sabbath.  Some of these, at least, pertained only to Israel.  My previous post on the Law probably will let you know where I go with this.  These commands were part of an overall covenant with the nation of Israel to establish them as God's unique people, and to spell out the ways they were to maintain that uniqueness.  Some of those ways were clear reflections of the morality of God (the Ten Commandments).  Others were ways that obedience to God's specific command was to show Israel's submission to God, and to mark them out before the nations as unique (dietary and clothing regulations, for example).  Tattoos were a cultural marker of the other nations who thought that marking themselves while in mourning or in devotion to their idols, along with shaving parts of their heads, cutting themselves, and marring their beards would gain the idol's favor.  Nothing about Israel was to communicate that God worked in these ways.  So, such practices were banned by Yahweh for his people.

We live under a different covenant, and in times where tattoos are not associated with idolatry.  Therefore, the Levitical prohibition is not binding today, any more than I would consider the prohibition on using two kinds of seed in the same field to be binding on farmers today.

Tattoos can be painful, sometimes reflect poor judgment (having "Stella" tattooed on your chest can be problematic if you and Stella break up), and may occasionally have a negative impact on your job prospects if they are visible.  They can be beautiful and artistic as well, and may tell a story or remind someone of a key moment or promise.  They are not, in and of themselves, sinful or forbidden to the Christian.