Christians often refer to Leviticus 19:28 to support their argument that God forbids us to have tattoos. The scripture reads, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28 NIV). While it certainly speaks against cutting or tattooing the body, this scripture is often applied without reference to the cultural context it was written to address, the history of tattooing in modern society, and acknowledging what New Testament scripture says about the validity of the Old Testament law after Christ. Thus, there are three reasons why the Leviticus 19:28 scripture does not provide sufficient proof that God forbids tattoos.
The kind of tattoos in our culture today are not the kind of tattoos God describes in Leviticus 19:28. Tattooing was first noted among ancient Egyptians as far back as 2000 B.C. and was primarily practiced on Egyptian women as a “lucky charm” during pregnancy. In other ancient cultures, for instance in Scythia and Thracia, tattoos were used to signify nobility. Greeks and Romans used the custom to express connection to a religious sect, enslavement and as a means of punishment for criminals. (“Tattoos”)
Tattooing spread in popularity over the centuries from ancient Egypt to China, India, Indonesia and the Americas. In the 1700s and 1800s, English explorers were introduced to the custom during their travels to the South Pacific. They were so fascinated by the look of tattoos that they began to have natives tattoo them and it became a spectacle upon their return to England. Eventually tattooing became a trend among explorers, merchants and even royalty in England. (“Tradition Unbound: Tattoos beyond Polynesia”)
In America, tattooing was primarily a custom practiced among sailors and military servicemen in the 1800s and early 1900s, then it grew in popularity in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, tattoos became a trend among artists as a sign of personal expression and rebellion. In today’s culture, tattoos are still viewed as a form of personal expression and have become more accepted as a legitimate art form. They are typically not viewed as having any connection to cultic or religious practices. (“Tradition Unbound: Tattoos beyond Polynesia”)
When God gave Moses the law to give to the people of Israel, its purpose was to establish a standard for them to draw closer to God and neglect the ways of the world. God’s intent was for Israel to be distinct from the cults of its time, including the idol-worshipping Egyptians (Leviticus 10:10-11). Israel had a history of being religiously influenced by the Egyptians (1 Samuel 8:8). The law was how God sought to give His people freedom from this sin.
When Jesus died for our sins, it gave us a new way to be in relationship with God, not based on the law of Moses but based on grace. Because Jesus was the Second Adam (Romans 5:12), everything that happens to Him happens to us. When Christ died on the cross, we died with Him. And because He rose from the dead, we will rise with Him as well (Romans 6:4-5). In Romans, Paul uses an analogy of a widow to describe our relationship to Old Testament law. He says, at one point we were married to the law but when we died with Christ, we became free from the bond of the law, just as a widow would be (Romans 7:1-6). The death and resurrection of Christ made the old law obsolete and created a new way to experience God, through grace (Romans 6:14).
Further, the law of Moses was specifically given to God’s chosen people, the Israelites (Deuteronomy 4:44-45). You and I fall into the category of Gentiles, those not born into the Israelite nation. So, one can argue that the law was never even intended for us, as we were adopted into God’s family after the law was made obsolete through Christ (Galatians 3:19, Romans 8:15-17).
So to sum up all of this, Leviticus 19:28 doesn’t provide ample proof that God forbids tattoos. However, I think God does have something to say about how we approach getting tattoos, as He has something to say about every area of our lives and every choice we make. When deciding to get a tattoo, here are some questions and scriptures to consider:
Is your tattoo God-honoring?
“So, whether you eat or drink, or uwhatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV
Are you succumbing to peer pressure?
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 ESV
If you are under-aged, what do your parents have to say about you getting tattooed, and are you honoring them in your decision making?
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’” Ephesians 6:1-3 ESV
Will you regret the tattoo when you are older?
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8 ESV
Lineberry, Cate. “Tattoos” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 01 Jan 2007. Web. 26 May. 2013. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html.
“History of Tattoo” Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo. PBS. Web. 27 May. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/skinstories/history/index.html.
Tamara + street art