Are Tattoos Sinful?

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It is written:

Leviticus 19:27-28-27 You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.

The passage which condemns the “tattoos” here also condemns shaving around the sides of the head.

What is going on here?

In order to answer that, we need to understand the context of these statements.

God was instructing the people of Israel about the land of Canaan which they were going to inhabit, and the practices of the people in that land.

Leviticus 18:24-30-Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. 25  For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. 26  You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, either any of your own nation or any stranger who dwells among you 27  (for all these abominations the men of the land have done, who were before you, and thus the land is defiled), 28  lest the land vomit you out also when you defile it, as it vomited out the nations that were before you. 29  For whoever commits any of these abominations, the persons who commit them shall be cut off from among their people. 30  ‘Therefore you shall keep My ordinance, so that you do not commit any of these abominable customs which were committed before you, and that you do not defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God.’”

Notice that in this context, the Lord is discussing practices in the land that are identified as “abominations.” The word “abomination”usually had reference in the Old Testament to a religious desecration.

“a-bom-i-na’-shun (piggul, to’ebhah, sheqets (shiqquts)): Three distinct Hebrew words are rendered in the English Bible by “abomination,” or “abominable thing,” referring (except in Ge 43:32; 46:34) to things or practices abhorrent to Yahweh, and opposed to the ritual or moral requirements of His religion. It would be well if these words could be distinguished in translation, as they denote different degrees of abhorrence or loathsomeness. The word most used for this idea by the Hebrews and indicating the highest degree of abomination is to’ebhah, meaning primarily that which offends the religious sense of a people. When it is said, for example, “The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians,” this is the word used; the significance being that the Hebrews were repugnant to the Egyptians as foreigners, as of an inferior caste, and especially as shepherds (Ge 46:34). The feeling of the Egyptians for the Greeks was likewise one of repugnance. Herodotus (ii.41) says the Egyptians would not kiss a Greek on the mouth, or use his dish, or taste meat cut with the knife of a Greek.” (George B. Eager, “Abomination,” in James Orr, Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), 1149-1157 (Kindle Edition); OSNOVA)

Although the Hebrew words translated here as “abomination” later came to reference to a moral desecration (cf. Proverbs 12:22; 15:9, 26; 16:5; 17:15), its’ primary signification was to a religious desecration. As such, the tattoos under condemnation in Leviticus 19:27-28 were in the context of pagan worship.

Indeed, Bible commentators thought the years have pointed this out:

“These two verses prohibit cutting the hair162 on the side of the head or the beard163 and cutting the body164 either for the dead or with tattoo marks.165 These activities were practiced by pagans especially during times of mourning for the dead.166 The Israelites were not to emulate pagan practices in this regard since they maintained a sacredness for life and for the human body.” (Mark F. Rocker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary-An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture-Volume 3A, 7335-7342 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group)

Yes, God does condemn this kind of tattoo. However, there are other passages where tattoos are not spoken of as intrinsically evil. For example, the Prophet Isaiah wrote:

Isaiah 49:15-16-15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. 16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me.

Studying the Hebrew and the context of this passage is fascinating. One scholar has shed much light on the subject:

“The Hebrew word for “engraven” is chaqaq (קקח). This is an unusual word because it means not only “to imprint” or “to engrave,” but also “to imagine.” This word has its roots in the Akkadian language, and the only way to understand it is to consider an unusual practice of the women in the ancient Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were a warlike people, and when a young man reached a certain age, he would usually be inducted into the Assyrian army. When a son left home to go off to war, his mother would long for some token to remind her of her absent child— so she would get a tattoo….The mother would go to the local “tattoo parlor,” so to speak, and have her son’s name tattooed on the right palm of her hand. As I mentioned earlier, the ancients believed that one’s heart was found in one’s right palm. Thus, this token, or symbol, that she would have permanently tattooed on her right palm would be a reminder of her son who was off fighting a war for her safety. According to Assyrian beliefs, that token was as close to her “heart” as possible. Since the palm of the hand is one of the parts of the body that we see most frequently, each time she looked at this little token, she would think of her son. Of course, God does not have a physical hand, and He is speaking metaphorically when He says, “I have engraven thee upon the palms of my hands.”…What God is saying in this analogy is that we are closest to His heart, and He has a little token of us permanently “engraved” on His right hand as a continual reminder of us. He is imagining all the things He longs to do for us….The Hebrew word rendered “walls” is chamah (המח), which means “a barrier” or “a wall of defense.” God has permanently engraved us near to His heart, yet too often we set up walls or barriers to His love. The picture is that of a mother longingly reaching out to her child, but the child refusing to acknowledge her love. Yet she continues to have compassion on that child. Her child may even spit on her or curse her, but she will still long to reach out to him or her. Likewise, God longs for us and wants us to draw near to Him a million times more than we long for Him. So, keep the word chaqaq (קקח), “tattooed” or “engraved,” in your mind the next time you feel as if God is not there or has abandoned you. You have His assurance, “I will not forget you.” (Chaim Bentorah, Hebrew Word Study: Revealing The Heart Of God, 3374–3401 (Kindle Edition); New Kinsington, PA; Whitaker House)

Clearly, not all tattoos are condemned by God, since God Himself pictures Himself as having one!

Other passages of Scripture bear out this truth.

Ezekiel 9:3-4-Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub, where it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed with linen, who had the writer’s inkhorn at his side; 4  and the LORD said to him, “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.”

Revelation 9:2-3-Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God. And he cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, 3  saying, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

Revelation 9:4-They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Revelation 14:1-Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.

All of these passages in Revelation refer back to the text in Ezekiel, where God’s people receive a “mark” on their foreheads as a sign of their devotion to the Lord. Interestingly, the word rendered as “mark” has primary reference to the sign of the Cross!

God’s people are said to figuratively have the tattoo of the Cross on their foreheads.

If tattoos are inherently sinful, why would God say that His people receive tattoos at His direction?

The Bible does not condemn all tattoos; and when some tattoos are condemned, reference is made to the use of said tattoos in the practice of paganism.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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