Does The Bible Condemn Tattoos?

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

In this episode Phylicia discusses Leviticus 19:28 and how to interpret tough passages in Leviticus in light of today’s culture. You can watch the video breakdown of this topic on her Instagram highlight, Leviticus, and grab the book Every Woman a Theologian on Christianbook, Amazon, or Target!


Listen Now



Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before, and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian. 

Welcome back to Verity podcast friends. I am so thrilled to be joining you and in your earbuds today. And today, we’re going to take a little dive into Leviticus. So over the last 8 weeks, we’ve done this broad sweeping treatment of theology and how it applies to our lives. The last 8 weeks have concentrated on the chapters of my recent book, Every Woman A Theologian, which takes you deeper into the truth of who God is based on biblical historical theology. And now we’re going to get a little bit more specific. Just this week on Ask Anything Monday, which I do every week on Facebook and Instagram, I got a question about tattoos and whether tattoos were a sin based on Leviticus 19:28. And so we’re going to be looking at Leviticus 19 today to get an answer to that question. 

But I love this question because I think it actually gives us a great example of how to exegete or draw out the biblical meaning of a text when it was written in a time and culture very different from ours. I get this form of a question quite often. Why is there a law against boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk? Why is there a law against mixed fibers? And How do we understand these laws today? So if we aren’t observing the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel because we aren’t a theocracy, How do we then understand laws in Leviticus and how do we translate the principle in them to our modern culture? And that is a fantastic question. It has a lot to do with the interpretive journey. I think I talked about that back on an episode about interpreting the Bible correctly. 

And we’re gonna revisit it really quick just as a reminder of what it is. So the interpretive journey is a Bible study method or a method of exegesis, really, that was invented by the writer J Scott Duvall. He has an amazing textbook called Grasping God’s Word. I used it when I was getting my religion degree, and in that book is a description of something called the interpretive journey. Basically, what it is, is it looks at these texts and it teaches you how to take the text from the culture and context it was written to today without rushing application and without just reading whatever meaning you want onto the text. A lot of people struggle with this. A lot of people rush application. They don’t like reading things like Leviticus because they feel like they can’t find the application, And they don’t understand that a lot of times, exegeting scripture, drawing out the meaning is slow. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience.

So What we have to do here is we have to start with Scott Duvall at the beginning, which is in the text itself, in Leviticus 19. He says the first step of the interpretive journey is to ask what’s going on in their culture and their context. What was it like in their day? And so we know that Leviticus 19 was written to the people of Israel when they were at Mount Sinai. They have covenanted with God. God is covenanted with them, and he says, okay, I’m going to live with you and I’m going to be your God, but here’s how you need to live to have my holiness dwelling with you. And in those laws, we see the first half of Leviticus concentrated on relationship with God And the second half concentrated on relationship between humans.

Holiness was expected in both of those relationships. And so in Leviticus 19, we’re in the second half talking about relationships between humans and holiness required of the humans who are living with God, and this is one of those laws that has to do with tattoos. Talks about specifically marking oneself or cutting oneself and then putting marks on your body. And so we’ll talk a little bit more about that in a second, but Leviticus 19 is about holiness.

It’s about being a holy people because a holy god lives with you and has saved you. Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like how we are called today. So here’s Israel in their context receiving this law. They’re also entering a land with a huge Canaanite presence, and these Canaanites worship these ancient, not I wanna call them Babylonian gods, but I mean Babylonian in the term of Babel, like the tower of Babel. Pre flood Deities, like these demonic gods, basically. And they had a lot of rights and rituals that they used in the worship of these gods. So sexual acts that they performed as a part of fertility rights, mourning, worshiping the dead, just a lot of creepy stuff. Okay? As one does, right, if you’re a Canaanite. 

So the Israelites are headed into Canaan. Canaanites have been given 400 years to repent. They haven’t, and so God is using Israel as a means of judgment against the Canaanites just as he will use the Assyrians and the Babylonians as judgment against the Israelites later when they do the exact same things. So they’re about to enter and here’s the law that’s given. When we are looking at this law and the context surrounding it. We want to ask what other laws are surrounding this law about tattoos so we can grasp what the culture and context of the time was. And the law right before the law against tattoos is a law against cutting hair on the sides of your head or clipping the edges of your beard. Okay. Well, that’s interesting. And then the one after that in verse 29 is to not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute. Anyone else feel like this is jumping to wild extremes? We’re talking about going to the barber, and we’re talking about going to the tattoo parlor, and then we’re talking about going to the brothel all in the span of 3 verses. So if you’re confused, that’s okay because what’s happening here? 

Cultural context tells us that Canaanite worship involved a lot of these things. It involved cutting your hair a certain way, carving into your body with a knife. It involved marking your body, probably with marks to these deities and prostitution or forced prostitution. One commentary says Cultic prostitution intended to promote agricultural fertility, and it was a startling feature of Canaanite worship that was strongly denounced by God. So this kind of prostitution was a part of the worship rituals as was this tattooing. So what does that tell us? We know, first of all, this is the context, this is the culture that was happening. Also, if you hear my children in the background, Please overlook it. It’s 4 o’clock, so it’s that time of day. 

So as we’re looking at this passage, we have to then move on the interpretive journey to the next stop, which is to measure the river to cross. Ask what differences are there between that audience in Leviticus and us today. Well, the biggest difference is we’re under the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Right? We’re under the new covenant. We’re under grace. Those of us who are Gentiles were on not under the ceremonial and the civil law of Israel because Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law and the civil law applied to a theocracy. But the moral law, the center of all of those laws, still applies today. The 10 Commandments. Anything that is reiterated in the New Testament that echoes with the 10 Commandments taught. So when we look at this particular law about tattoos, we want to be thinking, you know, what does this law have to do with the moral law. What moral law is this attached to that God would condemn this action? So the differences between us and them are mainly the new covenant.

So the 3rd step in this process is to build the principle bridge. What’s the principle about God in this verse about tattoos? Well, if we look at it where it says don’t cut yourself, don’t mark yourself, and then we look at the Ten Commandments, we can immediately see that if this was a part of a pagan worship ritual, it violates the command that God gave against having other gods. You could also say it violates the command about making a graven image. Now how would that be? Because as I talked about in the episode on cosmology, we are the image of God. We are the idol of God. So if you’re carving into yourself with a knife or however they tattooed back then, You are literally carving into yourself the image of another God on the image of God. You’re defaming the image of God. You’re defaming his representative on earth. And this is why it’s so offensive because it was a part of a pagan worship ritual that was tattooing and cutting oneself as a part of worshiping a different god and destroying the divine image in the human body, because you’re using the human body to exalt a different deity. So that is why this was such a big deal in Leviticus. 

And this brings us to the principle about God. God is, A, the only God. Right? There are no other gods but Him. B, god is a jealous god. He loves his people. He doesn’t want to see them committing adultery as the analogy goes in scripture with another god. And this action of worshiping god in this way of doing and cutting oneself in that culture and time was a way of committing idolatry to another god, and God is a jealous god. So God is holy, and he will be worshiped rightly and purely and with a sound mind and with holiness. He’s not going to allow us to take these other methods of worship and integrate it into his worship. Borrow methods from these other pagan religions. Okay.

So knowing this principle about God, he is the only one. He is a jealous God. He is utterly holy. Now we can start to take Leviticus 19:28 and apply it in our culture. But before we do, we want to consult the biblical map. And that means looking at the whole of scripture. Does the whole of scripture line up with what we found out about God in this passage? And it does. The whole of scripture says God is holy. God is a jealous God. There is no other god but him. So the principle we’ve found in this passage, it lines up with the rest of scripture. We’re not coming up with this brand new idea about God that isn’t found anywhere else in the Bible. It’s consistent. And now we can translate that principle to our modern era, and we can ask how does this truth about God apply to me today? 

So what do I do about tattoos today? If in the culture back then tattoos were used as an act of pagan worship, They were used to denote that you were worshiping another god. They often were very dark or evil. They involved cutting as part of these worship rituals. What then does that mean for me today? How do I understand a tattoo today? Well, I would ask those questions. Is the tattoo I’m getting giving allegiance to a different god? Is the tattoo I’m giving getting honorable to my body and to other people. Is it something wholesome? Could I see it lined up against the fruit of the spirit and it would, you know, match up, or is it something that’s really dark or really distracting from what is good and wholesome? Am I using this tattoo to align with something in my culture or with a specific set of beliefs that’s not aligned with Christianity? So if you run through these questions, you’ll find that it’s possible to get a tattoo without worshiping a pagan god or aligning with cultural ideals or getting something that is dishonoring to your body. It’s possible for us to get a tattoo while still honoring God.

And I say this is someone who has two tattoos. My husband has two as well. Now you might say, well, that biases you on this, Phylicia, but I actually studied this out before I ever got a tattoo because I got my 1st tattoo about 6 years ago. Before I ever got it, I had to wrestle with this and ask what is the moral implication here of a tattoo? What does it mean? And how do we reckon with this as people who are called to be holy. And thankfully, the Bible gives us that truth. 

So when you are looking at laws like this in the Bible, when you’re looking at things like this law that talks about tattoos, you have to look at the context literarily in the Bible, where is it, what is it flanked by? And in this case, it was flanked by those other mourning and worship rights, such as cutting your hair or entering into prostitution, which God had definitely banned. I should note that the cutting of the hair was a specific hairstyle. Very specific hairstyle and the reason for that was again, its association with these Canaanite worship rituals. 

So what are some other applications for this process in navigating this? Well, I think that one of the big applications of how we’ve drawn out the meaning of Leviticus 19 is in how we go about worshiping God. Today’s culture we’re seeing more and more people say, well, I can use drugs as a way to get close to Jesus. I can use marijuana as a way to get closer to Jesus. Or I feel closer to Jesus by having sex with my boyfriend. I feel like he has no problem with that. Or I feel closer to Jesus by using energy healing or using Reiki or any of these things that people take from other religions or things the Bible directly condemns and say, well, it brings me closer to God. This is not biblical and God does not accept it as worship. It is so important we recognize this. This is the exact same method that Israel tried to use when they refused to destroy the places of Canaanite worship, the high places. Over and over God said destroy the high places. Take them down. Do not worship in them. But Israel did not take them down And instead they tried to combine their worship of Yahweh with the methods of the Canaanites. And that’s what we’re seeing today. People trying to combine new age or gnostic or, quite honestly, Satanist methods of worship with Christianity and saying it brings me closer to Jesus. But God has no part with that. He is a jealous God. There are no other gods but him, and he has decided how he will be worshiped, and he’ll be worshiped in holiness and in righteousness and with a sound clear mind.

One of the distinctives of Christianity actually that sets it apart from other religions is that you don’t have to enter into this empty minded state or take drugs in order to experience your God. He actually commands us to have a sound mind to be able to think rationally and clearly. And so this is an important part of this conversation because the Canaanite worship rituals involved drugs and alcohol and orgies and all of this stuff that God condemned. And later on in Greece, we see the same thing. In Rome. Same thing. And what does the Old and New Testament say over and over and over again? I have called you out of that. 

So when we’re thinking about tattoos, we actually get to expand the conversation to think bigger. Am I living as if God is the only god? And my understanding that God needs to be worshiped rightly and I cannot combine worship of him with the methods of the world when it comes to his worship. This is a challenging passage, but it’s so relevant for today. We may be free to get tattoos, but we’re not free to worship god according to the world’s methodologies, and scripture gives us a better and clearer and more righteous way, the holy way, the way to come to God with a clear mind and an open heart, a god who loves us and wants to redeem us and wants to set us free. 

So, hopefully, this helps see you as you’re navigating passages in Leviticus helps you as you’re thinking through things like tattoos or cutting the sides of your hair. I hope it will be helpful to you as you navigate these passages and as you have discussions with your friends about the application of Leviticus. 

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world find out about Verity and about Every Woman a Theologian as a ministry in a shop. We appreciate you, and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s word and the heart of Jesus.


    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop