Introduction: The Weight of Grief
Death is an enemy. We were warned in Eden that this enemy would be unleashed if we disobeyed, and as certain as the Bible, death came for us. Though our first ancestors still lived long lives, stretching nearly a millennium, it came for them all. Not one could escape. As the weight of grief and the fear of death haunted mankind, the people of the earth sought for ways to satiate the pain, honor the dead, and keep the specter of their own mortality at bay.
Of course we have the archaeological evidence of how ancient cultures grieved their dead, how they buried them, and honored them, and––more importantly to my point here––how they dealt with their grief. The Scripture offers us a hint in Moses’ law:
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.Leviticus 19:28
This prohibition explicitly rules out mourning for the dead by marring, branding, or inking your flesh. It is striking that what we might call “self-harm” was the response to grief that Scripture took off the table as being an unlawful way to grieve.
No Tats for Abraham’s Kids
The larger immediate context here in Leviticus addresses pagan ways of life. These practices aren’t allowed for God’s covenant people, practices such as eating meat with blood, witchcraft, pagan hairstyles (likely addressing the practice of honoring some deity by shaving their signs/symbols into your hair). The Hebrews’ grief over the dead was not to be excessive or inconsolable. They served the God who had revealed Himself to be “I AM,” and thus the resurrection from the dead was baked into Israel’s religious understanding (Cf. Mk. 12:26-27).
A few chapters later, God makes a similar prohibition; this time His directions are aimed towards the Levitical priests:
They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.Leviticus 21:5
The priests were not to adopt the practices of pagan priests, whether it be in shaving pagan symbols into their hair, cutting their flesh, or prostituting their daughters. The priests of Yahweh were to act in accordance with His covenant, not according to synchronistic pragmatism.
Deuteronomy Weighs in
In Moses’ covenant renewal sermons of Deuteronomy he reiterates this prohibition:
Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.Deuteronomy 14:1
In view here are practices common amongst the Baal worshippers of Canaan. These rituals are exhibited later on in Scripture, in Elijah’s contest with Baal’s priests (1 Kng. 18:28). “Cuttings of the flesh” constituted a part of Canaanite fertility rituals to appease Baal. They thought the ground would be renewed through spilling their own blood upon it. Israel was not allowed to participate in either the grieving practices of the Canaanites, nor in such fertility rituals.
In Canaanite religion there were also “professional” lamenters. These were usually women who would be hired to weep, wail, and cut themselves in order to express their grief. Their purpose in this was to show the deceased that they were held in honor. This was thought to keep the spirits from haunting the community. Regardless, God prohibits this sort of marring of our bodies as a means of grieving the dead.
So, what are we to do with the fact that, even amongst Christians, we not only have no aversion to tattoos, we embrace & welcome tattooing. It shouldn’t surprise us to find an abundance of tattoos in the broader culture, as it is increasingly paganized. But the frequency of the practice should also draw our attention to why it is being done. What’s the most common type of tattoo? Is it not some tribute to a deceased relative or friend? A heart with mom’s name in it. Angel wings with Grandpa Bill’s name inscribed. And after all, why is it that skulls are the go-to tattoo? I’d hazard a guess that the amount of tattoos a woman gets, corresponds closely to her number of abortions.
It’s striking that in pagan cultures of old, the tendency was to grieve the dead through marring one’s own flesh, and marking it to honor the departed. This ritual was off limits to Israel. Now, as Western Civilization abandons the worship of the Triune God, we find ourselves returning to ancient pagan means of grieving the dead. The cults of the dead would mark themselves, an attempt to keep a sort of contact with the dead. It was a vain hope that the marks upon their flesh would enable the living to communicate with the dead. We see this sort of sentimentalism in the common expressions about deceased family “looking down” on us and “watching over us.”
Grief over death leads unbelievers to mark their flesh with proof of their grief. Those without the hope of the resurrection reach to vain measures to cling to the hope of seeing their departed loved ones again. The Word of God forbids us from attempting this. Instead it comforts us with the knowledge that those in Christ Jesus shall rise again, and are, even now, in Christ’s blessed presence.
Are Other Sorts of Tattoos Lawful?
The inevitable objection is that not every tattoo is drawn as a means of grieving. Are other sorts of tattoos lawful? What if you just want to have permanent artwork, or the symbol of some group you’re a part of? We must remember that Israel was given a sign with which their body was to be marked: circumcision. And now in the New Covenant, our body is marked with a sign of water. To be marked with some other sign is to allow a kind of covenantal claim on your body.
One irony is that many Christians argue that they are getting their tattoo to be a witness to their Christian faith. So they ink a Hebrew or Greek word on their wrist. Here’s the problem. At the very least adopting a “cool” cultural practice in order to witness to their faith should raise the question, as to whether this practice is the best medium for Gospel communication. Making a Christian porn film to show how intense Song of Solomon’s view of marriage is would not only be unwise, it would be an unlawful way of communicating the Word.
A Rival Sign
But there’s a deeper problem than just mindless cultural conformity. When a Christian gets a tattoo to mark themselves as a “person of faith” in some way, they introduce a rival covenant sign to their baptism. Of course, our baptism itself isn’t perpetually visible to the physical eye. But this is why the Christian is admonished to let their manner of life adorn & display the Gospel (1 Thes. 1:5, 2 Pt. 3:11). This is precisely the point of the Levitical law before us, your body is not to be marked because it already has been marked out for the Lord’s service.
A small cross tattoo on your forearm raises the question as to why you would need a permanent bodily sign when God has already sealed you as a son or daughter of promise through your baptism. Other marks are not only unnecessary, they purport to replace the sign of your baptism. This, of course, isn’t the expressed rationale for most Christians who get a tattoo. But it should be asked, “how is such a mark not a rival token to your baptism?”
If a tattoo is merely a permanent adornment for stylistic purposes, we’re confronted with the need to explain how these “cuttings/pricks” are not what Leviticus prohibits. If the tattoo is a mark of your devotion to Christ, you must be challenged to defend how it isn’t a rival baptism. Some justify tattoos by citing Paul. In Galatians 6:17, Paul calls the scars he received by being beaten for his witness of Christ, his stigma (or tattoo). These were marks he unwillingly received, but gloried in later due to the witness they bore to his sufferings for Christ. It should be evident to us that willingly placing a rival token on yourself is quite a different thing than unwillingly receiving persecution for testifying to Christ.
Furthermore, God promises to mark out all who are His (Ez. 9:1-4), and the Lamb has marked all the elect with His Father’s name upon our foreheads (Rev. 14:1). It would seem that the sort of tattoos which Christians defend are an attempt to walk by sight and not by faith in God’s promise to write His name on their forehead.
One Other Thing (Okay a Few Other Things)
Thus, tattoos or markings which commemorate a deceased person are unlawful. Marking oneself with the emblem of loyalty to some earthly community (however “harmless”) is also unlawful. Both of these are resurrecting the vain practices of paganism. But closer to home, Christians should not reify their baptism through appropriating the practice of godless superstition. If you have a tattoo, you should refrain from getting any more. Remove them as you’re able, or else keep them as discretely as possible.
And in this matter, as in all others, repenting of past follies begets future wisdom. The commands to ancient Israel were not capricious, nor should we think they’ve simply sputtered out. There were clear dangers from which God was guarding His people (both then and now). We are set apart as God’s people, through the sign & seal of baptism. The water which washed you at your baptism is a sign which was good enough in God’s sight to mark you as His, so don’t try to outdo God.