God commanded the Israelites in Leviticus 19:28 to not make any cuts on their body for the dead or tattoo themselves. But he also told them in verse 19 not to wear clothing made of two different kinds of fabric. On what basis can we say that the command to not get tattoos or make cuts on our body for the dead is binding on Christians today while the command to not wear clothing made of different kinds of fabric is not? How we answer the question of whether Christians can tattoo themselves depends on how we answer the following questions: “What is the basis upon which we determine what Old Testament laws are still binding on Christians today?” and “What was the reason for the original command forbidding Israelites from tattooing themselves?” To answer these questions, we need to explore the relationship between the Old Testament and the New and the historical context in which Leviticus 19:28 was given.
The short answer to the question is no. The principle of ownership, the purpose of avoiding the pagan practices of the nations around Israel, and the reality that tattoos normally flow from the selfish motivation of expressing oneself to attract the attention of others are all reasons why this command is still binding on Christians today. On the other hand, the command to not wear clothing made up different fabrics was to be a reminder to the people of Israel that they are to be a people wholly sanctified to the Lord and are not to mix the holy with the profane.
Tattoos were common in the ancient Near East as a form of branding for slaves, to demonstrate one’s devotion to the god he or she serves, or for erotic enhancement. The land of Egypt from which the Israelites had come practiced tattooing for all these reasons. Some pagans would tattoo the image or name of the god they worship as a sign of their ownership by the god as a slave would be branded to show who they were owned by. The prohibition of Leviticus 19:28 also forbids making cuts on one’s body as a form of mourning for the dead. The association of tattooing with the pagan practice of cutting oneself reinforces that the motivation for this prohibition is so that the Israelites would not practice the religious customs of the nations around them, but instead derive their religion solely from God’s revelation in the Torah. The conclusion we should draw from this is not, “Tattoos are fine as long as they are not being done the same way pagans tattoo themselves,” but “Tattoos are an expression of pagan religion in the same category as cutting oneself for the dead.”
The word translated as “tattoo” in Leviticus 19:28 only occurs one time in the Hebrew Bible. But scholars are confident that the word is describing the act of tattooing based on the consistent translation of the word into other languages. Verse 27 gives further confirmation that the prohibitions of verse 28 are connected with pagan religious practices. Pagans would trim their hair in such a way as to signify their devotion to the god they worship as a form of distinguishing themselves from those who do not. In a similar way, tattoos serve as a visible sign of membership in a family, team, or cult. It is a perpetual outward reminder of one’s identity in a group (a hidden tattoo that no one can see defeats the entire purpose of having a tattoo). But for Christians, our identity is in Christ, not in any earthly fraternity.
The Israelites were forbidden to tattoo themselves because they were owned by God, not by any false god or any man. Would Moses approve of an Israelite getting a tattoo as long as the tattoo was of the name YHWH instead of a pagan deity? To tattoo oneself with the name of God would be taking God’s name in vain and worshiping God contrary to the way he has ordained in Scripture (Deut 12:4, 32). Because we are owned by Christ, we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:20). Because we do not belong to ourselves, we are not free to do with our bodies whatever we want. We are forbidden to engage in gluttony, addictive behaviors which enslave us (1 Cor 6:12), or do anything which would disfigure or bring harm to the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17). Because our bodies are God’s temple, he has the right to tell us what to do with them, how to dress modestly, and how to worship with them.
Israel was given the command to not wear clothing with mixed fibers and to wear tassels on their garments to serve as a reminder that they belong to God rather than through the form of a tattoo. The parallel to Deuteronomy 22:11-12 demonstrates that the command not to wear clothing of mixed fibers is in the same category as the command to wear tassels on clothing as a reminder that one is a member of Israel because the commands occur next to each other. Since I am not an Israelite but a Christian living under the new covenant, the command to not wear clothing of mixed fibers is not binding on me (Eph 2:15). But since I am bought by Christ and am not free to do whatever I want with my body, I still have an obligation to not imitate pagan forms of self-expression rooted in false religions. Unlike tattoos, wearing clothing of mixed fibers was never an expression of pagan religion. That is what distinguishes the two commands from each other. One is the prohibition of an established religious practice while the other introduces a unique form of distinction for Israelites.
But what if I want to get a tattoo of a Bible verse? Many people believe that having a distinctly Christian tattoo will help them fight against sin by having a constant reminder on their body of God’s love for them. But the problem with this strategy of fighting sin is that it doesn’t work. Tullian Tchividjian had a tattoo of “Tetelesti” or “It is finished!” on his arm and he still fell into great sin. There are numerous people who have fallen into sin despite having Christian tattoos. Disregard for the lesser commands of God eventually results in disregard for the weightier matters of the law. The biblical remedies against Satan’s devices are many, but tattoos are not one of them. We fight against sin by hiding God’s Word in our hearts, not by hiding ink under our skin.