Question: I have married, female, church friends who have recently gotten tattoos and they often ask me if I have a tattoo. I would like to have a better answer than, “Why put graffiti on a masterpiece?” Can you please help me understand Leviticus 19:28 and help me with a biblical view on tattoos?
I believe tattooing the body is something God doesn’t want his people to do, and I base my belief on three things:
- the context and background of Leviticus 19:28,
- Scripture’s theology of the body, and
- how the NT teaches us to interpret and apply OT laws.
First, Leviticus 19. The phrase “I am Yahweh” shows up 15 times in Leviticus 19. This phrase connects God’s identity and character to these commands. That is, the commands given here are a function of God’s identity and reveal His character. According to Leviticus 19:2, Yahweh is holy and, therefore, He commands us to be holy in all of our behavior. (Peter confirms this understanding in 1 Pet. 1:15-16.)
The rest of the chapter gives examples of holy behaviors that properly reflect Yahweh’s holiness. The commands not to cut the body for the dead or tattoo it are applications of the principle “be holy because Yahweh is holy.”
This raises the question, “How do Yahweh’s identity and character relate to His prohibition against human-initiated cutting or tattooing the body?” As our body’s Designer, God has the right to tell us what He does and doesn’t want us to do with the body.
According to Genesis 1:27, God created us in His image. God’s image is not limited solely to our spiritual dimension. God designed our bodies to reflect truths about Himself.
For example, He sees, so He gave us eyes; He hears, so He gave us ears (Psa. 94:9). Since our body images things about God, it seems natural that God would not want us placing images of other things on His image. By the way, Isaiah 44:5 is too problematic syntactically and textually to support a contrary argument.
Second, from a NT perspective, 1 Corinthians 6:20 tells us that God owns our bodies. Our bodies do not belong to us but to God. That means we don’t have the right to do with our bodies whatever we want. God has stated His will regarding how we grow our hair (1 Cor. 11:14-15), that the body is to be covered by clothing (Exod. 28:42; Hos. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:9-10), and the kinds of clothing He prohibits us from wearing (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3).
It isn’t surprising, then, that God would tell us what we can’t do with our skin.
Not only are our bodies owned by God, but they are also His temple (1 Cor. 6:19). God dwells, by His Spirit, in our bodies. This means they are set apart from common or ordinary use. As God’s temple, our bodies are to be viewed, treated, and adorned as holy.
God’s ownership, sovereignty, and image are at stake in what we do with our bodies.
One of the key virtues God wants to adorn His temple is self-restraint or discreteness (1 Tim. 2:9,15; Tit. 2:6,12). This is the virtue of maintaining appropriate boundaries, avoiding extremes, being self-disciplined, and avoiding calling undue attention to oneself. By implication, we shouldn’t draw attention to our bodies by our adornment, which is something tattoos definitely do.
Third, Paul models how to interpret and apply old covenant laws to new covenant believers. In 1 Corinthians 9:8-11, he interprets Deuteronomy 25:4. He recognizes a universal principle behind the command not to muzzle an ox when it treads grain: a worker should benefit from his work. He then applies that principle to his work among the Corinthians and argues that He has the right to benefit materially from His spiritual work (1 Cor. 9:11).
In short, we should look for universal principles behind any specific OT law and then apply them similarly. The universal principle(s) behind Leviticus 19:28 appear to be that God’s ownership, sovereignty, and image are at stake in what we do with our bodies. Since there is nothing in the context that necessarily limits this prohibition to Israel, I can see no reason not to apply this specific application in the same way.
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.