Justin Barnett: What does the Bible teach about tattoos?

Justin Barnett: What does the Bible teach about tattoos?

It would be nice if the Bible gave us a distinct answer for every question. However, the Bible frequently does not give us clear-cut answers about issues. I believe this is because God wants us to think and to wrestle with issues. Often, it is when we wrestle with questions that we grow in our faith and understanding.

Some believe it is right to condemn all tattooing as immoral because God clearly forbids tattoos in Leviticus 19:28. Since the word “tattoo” does appear in this verse in some English translations, this argument seems straightforward. Does God give an easy and clear answer to the question of tattoos?

“You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:28, NASB).”

At first glance, this verse seems to indicate tattoos are forbidden. However, when we look at the context of this verse we see God speaking to His covenant people of Israel. He is specifically telling them to stay far away from the religious practices of the pagans in the area.

In this chapter, God prohibits pagan religious practices like eating bloody meat, fortune telling, certain hair cuts that were related to religious practices, cutting or marking the body for dead relatives, cultic prostitution and consulting psychics.

In the midst of this, we find the word that is sometimes translated “tattoo.” The word translated tattoo is the Hebrew word “qa aqa” (pronounced kah-ak-ah). This word appears only one time in the Bible — in this passage in Leviticus.

The word literally means “to cut.” This word likely is used to describe the branding, scarring, cutting and the ancient tattoo methods of pagan religious practices. God is calling His people not to participate in any of this pagan religious worship. This portion of Scripture is a prohibition against pagan religious worship.

After being rescued from slavery, Israel was between Egypt and Canaan. Over the years, the Egyptians, who were fond of marking their bodies, had greatly influenced the Israelites. The Egyptians often tattooed the body parts of women associated with fertility, because it was believed to be a good luck charm to help with childbirth.

The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs in time of bereavement was also poplar in ancient times. It was seen as a mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave.

The Jews picked up some of these customs during the captivity. They later turned from them and back to worshiping God. However, some had gone back to these pagan worship practices, and God is commanding them to stop!

The tattoo of today is much different than what God is condemning in Leviticus 19:28. Today, people view tattoos as art and a means of self expression. In our culture, people modify their appearance in many ways. Makeup, plastic surgery, hair-cutting and coloring, weight-loss, body-building, piercings and more are modern ways to decorate and alter appearance.

Some of these practices have a history in ancient religious practices, but in our culture, they do not generally have anything to do with pagan worship.

The New Testament does not specifically command against or for tattoos, but it does give us some principles to govern all our behaviors and actions. In 1 Corinthians is a very good passage that we can apply to all areas of life: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31, NASB).”

Could getting a tattoo in some way bring glory to God? This is a question in which we can think about and wrestle. 

What about Jesus? No, Jesus did not have a tattoo. However, one of Jesus' big issues was that religious people of His day were primarily concerned about outward appearance. The Pharisees looked righteous on the outside. They certainly would not have had any tattoos, but Jesus condemned them, saying they were like white washed tombs — clean on the outside, rotten dead and stinking on the inside.

God is much more concerned about our hearts than if we have tattoos or not. Is your heart right with God? If so, can people see it your behavior, in your love for others?

The kind of judging that Jesus condemned is the kind that looks down on others, the kind that thinks that they are better or more righteous than others. That is what the Pharisees did.

Whether you personally like tattoos or not, I hope that you will not look down your nose on those that feel differently than you do. There are many good Christian people who have differing views about tattoos. Whatever you believe about this issue, I hope that you will be loving and gracious to those who might feel differently.

The man with all the tattoos might be one of the most loving people you will ever meet. He might even be your pastor.

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