Are tattoos a sin?
Let me start off by saying, first and foremost, that you may disagree with some of the ideas presented here. That is up to you. Please understand that I am only presenting what the scriptures say on this matter, and as my personal opinion has not been asked for, it will not be given. I know a lot of believers that had tattoos or body modifications before they became believers but changed their views once they were walking in the faith. I also know a lot of believers that have gotten them done after coming to the truth, and they say that the Holy Spirit never convicted them about it. I believe that everyone’s walk is different, and that is strictly a personal endeavor, so I am not one to tell you that you should or should not have them. I’m just going to present the facts, and you can take it from there.
Now, let’s talk about tattoos and body modifications.
Is it sinful? Where do we get this idea? Is it Biblical? Do those that have them have to have them removed in order to get right with YHVH?
I know there are several arguments centered on the idea that our body is a temple, and that we shouldn’t mark or cut it, because the LORD is Holy and therefore, we are meant to be Holy as He is. This view holds that we are somehow dishonoring YHVH when we mark, pierce, or tattoo our bodies because that is not the way we were originally created, and when we change the way we were created, it shows a lack of respect for the Creator’s ability. Another argument is that tattoos and piercings amount to nothing more than graffiti (vandalism of the body so to speak) and they are basically satanic in nature because they are an outward show of rebellion.
I’ve heard so many reasons why any form of body modification is just about the worst thing you could possibly do for various reasons. You name it, someone definitely has an opinion on it. That said, I think we need to look at the history of tattoos and body modification as a whole and I think that if we keep an open mind, we might just learn something.
Tattooing dates as far back, as we can tell, to the Neolithic period, or the Stone Age. Almost every ancient culture recorded in the pages of history has used tattooing and other modifications, such as piercings, as a means of either a tribal identification or as the mark of a prisoner or slave. Tattoos were used to signify certain rites of passage in some Native American and Middle Eastern Indian cultures and they were also used to identify a person’s rank or accomplishments like we see in the Phillippines. Ancient Egyptian women used them to represent religious affiliation, and as a method of healing. There were about as many ways to use tattoos as there are cultures that used them. In fact, when we see tattoos in ancient cultures, we are seeing a bit of their humanity because the reasons that they would use them are incredibly varied and diverse. And we see body modification in these cultures as well. We see that, again, the ancient Egyptians would pierce their ears and some of these examples date back several thousand years. Ancient African and American cultures pierced their lips and tongues, as well as other parts of their bodies, just as we see people doing today. Again, this is a practice that is varied, and well rounded and one that has been in existence for millennia.
Now, when we talk about the ancient Israelites, we know that YHVH had very specific rules for them because He wanted them to be set apart from the pagan cultures around them. He wanted them to be different, and often, visibly so. They were instructed on certain rituals, ways to wear their clothes, things that they should eat or not eat, and so on. YHVH wanted them to be easily distinguished from the pagan peoples that they were around for a couple of reasons. He wanted them to be Holy and separate, but He also wanted them to look differently and act differently than the pagans because as a nation, they were in their infancy. Everyone around them at that time was part of a polytheistic culture, and understandably YHVH wanted them to reflect a certain standard. He himself was the originator of that standard; and as His people who were now worshipping and setting up monotheism within their culture, they needed to become a visual symbol to the pagan cultures around them to whom and what they belonged.
Since almost all of the pagan and polytheistic world engaged in these practices, it makes sense to think that YHVH would tell His people not to engage in them. Right? Let’s see what the scriptures say.
“And a cutting for the dead you will not make in your flesh, and writing marks you will not make on you; I am YHVH.”
That seems pretty clear; however, it’s important that we take this, as well as all other scriptures in context so we can really understand these verses. At the beginning of this chapter, YHVH is giving Moses some of the rules found in the Torah such as the decalogue, how to treat the fields during harvest, and making sure that his people keep from profaning the Sabbath. In the surrounding text, we can see that YHVH is specifically addressing pagan religious and mourning rituals, because He states in verse 26, “Do not eat meat that has not been drained of its blood,” and verse 27, “Do not round out the corners of your beards.” These customs, along with sacrificing babies on burning alters and providing your daughter as a prostitute, were practiced in pagan rites and rituals. They would pull out the hair around their temples (round out the corners of their beards), and eat and drink blood. Almost universally, scholars agree that tattooing and the cutting of the skin were often related to pagan rituals for mourning for the dead. The pagan worshippers around the same time as the Israelites would disfigure their bodies to appease the anger of their gods and to find help for their deceased loved ones.
Remember the story of Elijah who called fire down from heaven, and when the pagans couldn’t arouse their own gods to perform the same way that YHVH had, showing His glory, they began to cut themselves and cry out to their gods. It’s a very similar thing that we see here taking place in the text of Leviticus. In closing out the chapter, YHVH tells Moses to make sure that the Israelites stand up in the presence of someone with gray hair and not to seek out the help of psychics. So, just in looking at that, have you ever met anyone who told you it was a sin if you didn’t stand up whenever your grandmother entered the room? What about the insane number of Christians that read horoscopes and use palm readers or any number of New Age practices that many many Christians take part in these days? It just goes to show you that we cannot cherry pick the scriptures.
OK, so now I want to look at other forms of body modifications, like piercings. There’s a lot on this one. There are literally tons of examples, with everything from the story about the golden calf in Exodus 32, to Ezekiel chapter 16, to Deuteronomy 15, to Judges, and The Song of Solomon. I mean, it’s literally all over the Bible. If we recall in the story about the Golden Calf, the Israelites were concerned about how long Moses had been gone on the Mountain. They thought he was never coming back. They took all of their gold- which included earrings, melted it down, and made a golden calf to worship instead of YHVH. When YHVH was filled with anger against them, He never mentioned that he was mad that they had been wearing jewelry; He was filled with anger because they were worshipping an idol! Plain and simple. He didn’t care that they had “cut their bodies” which is what we see, again, in the command about tattoos.
On top of that, let’s look at a specific passage in Ezekiel chapter 16. This is YHVH talking to the Israelites, it says:
10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12 And I put a ring in your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.
I understand that this is a metaphor for the people in Jerusalem, and that there wasn’t an actual women with these actual clothes or jewels, but what we can derive from this passage is that if all scripture is God-breathed, like we read from Paul’s writings, then we know that YHVH is here telling us that earrings and nose rings are seen as a matter of beautification, and not as a sin. It ‘s the same with clothes. The clothes in this imagery were the most expensive clothes you could get your hands on, it even says that it was the same stuff that royalty would wear- so it’s pretty obvious that YHVH is not concerned that we might have nice clothes or wear jewelry. He is more concerned that we’re honoring Him with our heart and not falling into idolatry.
That is the context in all of these verses. It is far more important to YHVH that we follow His word and keep ourselves from idols. And just to further the point, I want to look at Exodus 21, verses 5 & 6.
5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to YHVH, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
This clearly shows us that YHVH even endorses body modification in some cases. These verses indicate that it was a widely accepted practice of the Israelites to pierce the ear of a bondwoman or bondman in the event that they would rather stay with their master instead of going free. This, like we mentioned at the beginning of this article, was used to indicate a person’s status and wasn’t a sinful act. Many preachers will say that women should only dress modestly, that they aren’t supposed to wear makeup, that tattoos or piercings are a sin, and so on and so forth but if they are using the Bible to do it, then they need to be using the entire word.
If we look at the entirety of Leviticus chapter 19 and then try to use it as justification to condemn someone for having a tattoo, then we need to start standing up for all the elderly folks in the world and make sure that we are observing the Sabbath as outlined in the Old Testament, because if we’re using part of the chapter to call someone out for something but not living it out to completion then it makes us religious hypocrites. What did Yeshua say to his disciples in Matthew? He told them to listen to what the Pharisees taught because they sat in Moses’ seat- meaning that they taught from the law- but He told them not to DO what the Pharisees were doing because they didn’t practice what they were preaching! They were being hypocrites, and if we know anything about Yeshua, we know that he railed against hypocrisy. So don’t be that guy. Be careful before you just try to use the word of YHVH to condemn others. It is a two-edged sword.
We need to make sure that we are rightly dividing the word of truth, which includes being honest with ourselves and not just skimming through to use the parts of scripture we like and discarding the rest. That said, It’s also really important to understand that while the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid all tattoos, it does tell us that we are not to mark or cut our bodies for the dead. I know a lot of people that get tattoos as memorials for their deceased loved ones, and that might be skirting a mighty fine line. And while the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid things like piercings, how far is too far? If we are the temple of the Living Elohim, then where do we draw the line between decorating that temple and desecrating it?
That is why this can be such a slippery slope, and I believe that something like this can only be answered by the person considering it. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I wasn’t going to inject my own opinion into things and this is exactly why. We are all at different places in our walk with YHVH and if something is not expressly forbidden in the pages of scripture, like these topics, then I might be speaking wrongly for the Creator if I use my understanding of something as a means to condemn others of sin, which might make me guilty of sin myself. And I strive to avoid that at all costs.
So, that’s all I can say. The Bible makes it clear that pagan mourning practices are something that YHVH wants us to stay away from, and it also says that tattooing or cutting our bodies for the dead is a part of that. What it does not say is that all tattoos and piercings are sinful, and it shows us that even some of these practices were endorsed by the creator for various reasons. The rest is something very personal.