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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Getting a Tatoo a Sin?

We are reading Leviticus 19 the last couple days. The Jewish Law is a very difficult thing to deal with as Christians. On the one hand we often say that we are not bound by the Law, yet there are expectations of Christians which nuance the previous statement. Some Christians say that the Ten Commandments are still binding, but truth be told at least some of them (especially Keep Holy the Sabbath) are not kept at all. One popular approach is to separate moral law from cultic law. In other words, the worship rules are not in place but ethical ones are. This is fine when you get rid of animal sacrifice, or forbid murder, lying and stealing. However, the Torah does not divide the laws into two categories. Reading Leviticus the "instruction" mixes all types of expectations together. It jumps from one category to another, and some "laws" do not easily fit into a category.

The tatoo question comes up because it was listed today in the reading. It was couple with a warning: you shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar he edges of your beard. Neither of those drew any notice from my morning congregation. There, for me, is the problem with Biblical Law. When we see something we do not like we grab a Bible verse which backs us up and we point it out (all the while ignoring other verses).

Now, while we might be tempted to write off the "no tattoos" as OT Law and unbinding, it cannot be denied that Leviticus 19 is filled with relevant and theological primary material. 19:1 You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy." Jesus says the same in Luke's Gospel and the concept is certainly a feature of the NT teaching. [A side note, as much as "God is love" is popular in our own time, "God is Holy" is certainly a more frequent declaration of the true identity of God.It is a Holy God who loves us, His holiness defines love.]

What follows after are three verses containing Ten Commandment material: honor your parents, keep Sabbath and no idolatry. Then a few verses discussing how long a sacrificial meal can be kept (two days) and eaten. Certainly not relevant to us, in a literal sense.Then an exhortation to not harvest everything but leave it for the poor and foreigner. There is something of value here in discussing the Biblical mandate to care for the needy. In a sense this says let them have an opportunity to work for their food. It is a command to the wealthy to not squeeze the last cent of profits our of your resources, and it says to the poor, be willing to earn by your labor what you receive. [a hard message for rich and poor to hear]. Then a list of moral expectations about honesty and fairness which no one would question culminating in the demand to love your neighbor as yourself.

A lengthy discourse on sexual relations with a slave girl acknowledges the sinfulness. Then a declaration that you shall not eat the fruit of the tree until the third year. The Eden echoes did give me pause. What is the connection of forbidden fruit here and there? Next is the series with which we started (hair, tatoos) as well as an admonition not to make your daughter a prostitute or use magic. One assumes this is all connected to pagan practices. Respect for the elderly is followed with respect for the alien.

Clearly the double vision of the Torah for non-Israelites can be seen here. While much of the exodus story centers around the demand to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land, that is supplemented with a requirement like this, to treat the foreigner well "because you were foreigners in Egypt." Most scholars think this bipolarity is a function of different situations in Israel's history. In different times and places the situation dictates different behaviors.

Probably, for me, the most stunning verse was 19:34 You shall love the alien as yourself.
Let that one sink in for a while.

The Biblical instruction makes it clear that "love" did not mean full citizenship with the same rights. however, the fact that the foreigner is to be loved in the same way as the neighbor (like one's self) is breathtaking. And it is why a simplistic "we don't follow the OT laws" does not do justice to the complexity of the place of these teachings in the Christian ethic. I am still not sure what I think of the place of the Law (Instruction) in the life of the church, and at this late point in my life that is probably not a good thing. I do know that the theories and explanations which I have heard do not do justice to the complexity and maybe that, in the end, is what it means to live in a "Fallen" world.


  1. I have a Coptic cross tatooed on my wrist. Visiting Egypt, I found that the Coptic Christians all have one.

  2. Safe to say the Coptic Church would vote "no" right? thanks for this Bindy, it is interesting to see hear how universal the tattoo of the cross is in their culture. One of the more fascinating aspects of diversity. God bless and best to your family!