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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.
Over the years, I have had several interesting encounters with people that I have worked with regarding the subject of tattoos.
I remember one elderly man that I worked with who told me that he was condemned to Hell because he had gotten a tattoo as a teenager. For him, there was no point in repenting and being baptized and trying to live the Christian life because he would not be forgiven…because of his tattoo. When I asked him where he had gotten such a notion, he floored me by telling me that a preacher had told him thus!
On another occasion, a gentleman that I was working with in jail ministry told me that he had been told by his family that he was not allowed to come to church services because the “tattoos” that he had (the names of deceased family members that he loved) barred him from Heaven just as surely as if he had committed premeditated murder and had never repented of such.
A lady that I was blessed to work with informed me that her “pastor” had told her that she could not be admitted as a member of his particular denomination unless she had surgery to remove her tattoos.
I still remember a family who told me of a church they visited with eagerness to hear a new preacher. The family of four waited with rapt attention as the preacher climbed into the pulpit and informed the church that he had planned on preaching on another subject, but that he felt “called” to preach on the subject of tattoos because of their visitors that day. To their embarrassment, several turned and looked at them….because one of the ladies had a tattoo on her arm (it was a tattoo of an eagle in flight, if I remember correctly).
Now, all of this raises the question: what does the Bible teach us about tattoos?
The passage which is usually referenced regarding “tattoos” is this text in Leviticus. In order to understand the meaning of the passage, we must understand the context.
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.’”
God was concerned that the Hebrews were entering in this land with its people, and He did not want them to imitate their customs. Part of this custom involved the use of tattoos for magical purposes (i.e., using tattoos to summon and control the dead). Notice that the context of these passage dealing with tattoos speaks specifically of the “magic” and “gods” of the Canaanites:
Leviticus 19:4-Do not turn to idols, nor make for yourselves molded gods: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 19:31-Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.
Ken John tells us about the forms of sorcery practiced by the Canaanites:
“From Deuteronomy we can create a list of nine separate forms of Paganism. Once we identify these and learn exactly what the practices are, we will be able to see the form they occur in today….The Canaanites worshiped a god called Moloch with human sacrifices . Children, (mainly their firstborn sons) were burned alive in their sacrifices to this god….“Tophet is Moloch, an idol which was made of brass . The Canaanites heated him from his lower parts; and his outstretched hands were made hot. They put the child in his hands, and it was burnt alive. When the child vehemently cried out the priests beat a drum, so the father would not hear the voice of his son, and move his heart.” Rabbi Rashi’s Commentary on Jeremiah 7:31…Diviner –“Kesem” “Kesem” is the practice where one gazes at an object until he becomes transfixed by it and forgets the world around him. Once he achieves this great level of concentration, he can predict future events. By this definition, some form of meditation is required to achieve an altered state of consciousness….Observer of Times –“Me’onen” “Me’onen” is Chaldean Astrology. In later times it was confused with the cloud reader and those who divine by observing the flights of birds…The enchanter sees omens in animals. An enchanter uses something to charm/control animals (serpents and scorpions) to be passive or to attack. Burning incense is one way of charming…“Sorcerer” is a general term for any occult practice. It m ay include drug use , meditation , or both, but it always has some method to cause an altered state of consciousness . Compare this to Shamanism. The ancient church fathers used the terms “magician” and “sorcerer” interchangeably….A charmer is one who makes charms. A charm is a piece of jewelry worn for protection or to cause something to happen , such as attract love or money . A protective charm is called an amulet. Other charms are called talismans. In Acts 19:19 , Paul ’s new Christian converts in the city o f Ephesus burn ed their magic books. Archeology has unearthed some of these texts. The magic rites of Diana included spells, amulets, and talismans invoking her for aid. This is exactly the same thing found today inside the religion s of Hinduism and Wicca….One with a Familiar Spirit –“ Ob ” Ob ’s conjur ed up ghosts and spirits and made them materialize and speak. One kind used a skull ( teraphim) and the other kind use d soothsaying. Some rabbis taught that the Ob would see the spirit but not hear it speaking; the inquirer would hear the voice but not see the spirit, while bystanders would not hear or see anything…The Ob was the kind of Canaanite Sorcerer used by King Saul to conjure the spirit of the prophet Samuel….So the Ob created what is commonly called a necronomic pit . By use of a teraphim, (her familiar spirit) she cause d spirits to appear. This same practice of casting magic circle s on the ground for ritual purposes is still used today by modern w itches. See the chapter on Wicca for details….The Talmud states that the name for a wizard, Yidde’oni, comes from a word loosely translated as an extinct animal. It also states that no one remembers exactly what kind of animal it was. The name carried over to mean those who used a bone of this extinct animal by placing it in their mouths and through some incantations can have the dead speak through this bone. This has been translated as a ventriloquist or a medium. It is quite possible that the term in this ancient passage means, instead of “extinct animal,” a bone from the deceased. Mediums today often ask for an artifact of the deceased in order to try to make some sort of contact with them….A necromancer is a little different from the wizard. According to this passage in the Talmud, necromancers were said to spend nights in cemeteries in order to invoke the spirits of the dead . They would wear special clothing designed e specially for this purpose and burn incense to attract the spirits. Once the ritual was thought to be complete, the necromancer would go to sleep on the grave of the deceased , expecting them to appear in their dreams and answer their questions….Magician and Soothsayer are general terms for any of the previous practices. A sorcerer uses more ceremonial magic (calling on spirits for aid) , while a magician uses more non-ceremonial magic (relying on the power of the human spirit without asking other spirits for aid.) Biblically, whether the occultist thinks he or she is contacting a spirit or using their own power, it is exactly the same demonic manifestation.” (Ken Johnson, Th.D., Ancient Paganism: The Sorcery Of The Fallen Angels, 59-63 (Kindle Edition)
Tattoos played a special role in ancient paganism. Tattoos were used for several occult purposes.
Sometimes, the tattoos were used to mark people as belonging to a specific god or deity.
“It is believed that ancient tattooing involved pricking the skin and inserting pigments (H. G. May, “Tattoo,” IDB 4: 520, and L. M. Sweet and G. A. Gay, “Tattoo,” ISBE 4: 739). The tattoo indicated that one was a slave to a particular deity (“ Tattoo,” EncJud 15: 831–32).” (Mark Roker & Dennis R. Cole, Leviticus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary Book 3), 322, footnote 165 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group)
Tattoos were also used by ancient societies (including Israel when it was influenced by paganism) to try and summon the dead (and angels) for the purpose of controlling them.
“Seal, Magical: (/ Chatom; Taba’at). In different Hebrew texts, seals refer to different phenomena. In some, they indicate an object, usually an amulets or ring, inscribed with the names of angels or God (III Enoch; Ma’aseh Merkavah). In others, it seems to be a temporary tattoo like inscription written on parts of the Body, probably contained in a magic circle or magic square (M. Mak. 3: 6; Tos. Mak. 4: 15; Yoma 8: 3). 1 In either case, the seal is used as a kind of “key” or, more aptly, an “access code” for a mystical ascent or a summoning ritual. Israelite seal with winged sun Just like the tattoo variety, the metallic, parchment, or paper seals are apparently placed on the body, either as rings or pendants, for protection and for gaining authority over angels. One text indicates that the adept simply holds the seals in his hands during the ritual, Rabbi Ishmael said: When you come and stand at the gate of the first palace, take two seals, one in each hand: The seal of Tootrusea—YHVH Lord of Israel, and the Seal of Surya the Angel of the Presence … 2 Sefer Raziel details various seals that have magical power, including the “seal of heaven and Earth.” One such seal is diagrammed in the book, though the illustration doesn’t specify precisely what this particular seal is to be used for. The most famous magical seal in Jewish occult tradition is the Seal of Solomon, a brass and iron ring inscribed with a pentagram (Testament of Solomon) and the Tetragrammaton (Git. 68a), given to Solomon by Michael, that gave the king the power to communicate with animals and to summon and control demons . Rabbinic tradition also interprets circumcision as a kind of protective seal (Tos. Ber. 6: 24; Shab. 137b). SEE ASCENT, HEAVENLY.; MA’ASEI-MERKAVAH. 1. Bar-Ilan, “Magic Seals on the Body Among Jews of the First Centuries CE” Tarbiz 57 (1988). 2. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism.” (Geoffrey W. Dennis, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition, 377 (Kindle Edition); Woodbury, Minnesota; Llewellyn Publications)
A tattoo artist who has spent years researching the history of tattoos from different cultures around the world has written:
“A tattoo is the most basic form of sympathetic magic…“I believe that ancient peoples valued tattooing on a much more spiritual level than most of us do today but I think their reasons for getting tattooed were still much the same. Tattoo artist were shamans who as you will see in the following essays worked to heal the body as well as the soul. They made individuals look more beautiful, more powerful and even connected them to the divine and anyone who could do this was undoubtedly a very important member of any society…“The tattooed people of the past were warriors, priestess’, wizards, bruja, queens, kings, shaman, merchants and chieftains. Burials from around the world seem to suggest that it was the upper class that was most often tattooed but this may only be because their bodies were more likely to be preserved in elaborate burials. Tattooing was probably very common in many if not most ancient societies and I believe there is much to be learned about a culture by studying the art they chose to take to their graves.”(Margaret Moose, Tattoo: Magic, Medicine, Art, 4-6 Kindle Edition); Ancient Origins Website http://www.ancient-origins-net).
The tattoos that God is condemning in this passage in Leviticus have to do with those tattoos which were used for ritualistic and pagan magic in attempts to contact and coerce the forces of the spirit world.
Clearly, the motivations of many in our present day country and world are NOT for the same purposes!
“Tattoos today–at least in Western cultures–do not have the same pagan associations as they did in ancient Israel, so believers are no longer prohibited from getting them (just as they are no longer prohibited from various hair or beard styles, v. 27). Other quite separate questions might include: ‘Is it wise to get a tattoo?’ and ‘What does it mean to do so wisely?’” (Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries Book 3), 250 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
Does this mean that all tattoos are sinful?
Indeed, there are other passages where tattoos are not spoken of as intrinsically evil.
For example, God says through the Prophet Isaiah:
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.”
“Before reading the early Christian writings, I had not realized that there was anything about the cross in the Old Testament. I knew there were prophecies and types concerning the crucifixion of Jesus. But I didn’t know there was anything concerning the actual shape of the cross. But it’s there. Let me point to some of the figures of the cross in the Old Testament, which the early Christians write about….A third foreshadowing of the cross is found in the book of Ezekiel. However, this foreshadow is not as apparent in our English Bibles. Let me read to you the passage. It’s found in Ezekiel 9, verses 3 and 4…The passage goes on to explain that all those in Jerusalem were destroyed, except for those who had the mark on their forehead. As I mentioned, in English, few of us would see a foreshadow of the cross in this passage. However, in both Greek and Hebrew, the foreshadowing is a lot more obvious. That’s because what the text actually says is that the man with the writer’s inkhorn was to put the letter T or tau on the foreheads of those who were sighing and crying over the abominations in Jerusalem. And, of course, the letter T is in the shape of the cross. But our English Bibles inaccurately translate the passage by saying that the man was simply to put a “mark” on the foreheads. The foreshadowing here was even more apparent to the early Christians because they frequently traced the sign of the cross on their foreheads to demonstrate that they belonged to Jesus. In fact, at least by the year 200, after a person was baptized, the bishop would anoint him with oil by tracing the sign of the cross with oil on the forehead of the newly baptized person. On Judgment Day, those who belong to Christ, who figuratively bear the sign of the cross on their foreheads, are the ones who will be spared from condemnation.” (David Bercot, Shadows Of Christ In The Old Testament, 294-311 (Kindle Edition); Amberson, Pa; Scroll Publishing Company)
The Apostle John references this passage in Revelation:
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.
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 He Himself figuratively has a tattoo?
If tattoos are inherently sinful, why would God say that His people figuratively receive tattoos at His direction when they are saved?
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.
Christians need to be very careful when condemning a person for tattoos when they do not know the facts about the subject.
With that being said, what about a person who has a tattoo that is sinful who wants to be saved?
The Bible answer is the same for every person:
Acts 2:38-Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Must a person “get rid”of a sinful tattoo before he can be saved?
Repentance does not mean making oneself perfect. It means that a person has a heart that is willing to submit to Yahweh and seek His will. Repentance is not the same as the “fruits of repentance.”
Luke 3:8-Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
If you have a tattoo that was obtained for occultism or sinful purposes, repent of that. But do not try to make yourself perfect before you obey God! That day will never come!
One man I worked with had a tattoo of a naked lady on his arm which he had gotten in the military. He showed sorrow and repentance for this and I was blessed to baptize him into Christ. He sought to cover that tattoo whenever he went out into public, and when he came into the house of the Lord for worship.
What a great and godly example for us to emulate!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.