What does the Bible Say About Tattoos and Piercings?

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Does the Bible talk about tattooing and piercings? Yes, it does. Is it a moral law? Civil law or a ceremonial law only for the Israelites? Do these laws still apply today? It depends on who you ask. Let’s look at some context.

What does the Bible say about tattoos?

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 19:28

At first reading, this verse would appear to say that God forbids tattoos and piercings. But not so fast. While this is a law, it’s imperative first to understand what type of law this is. You might be surprised to learn that not all of the laws in the Old Testament apply to Christians today.

The three different types of laws in the Old Testament

Many people don’t realize that there were three types of laws in the Old Testament of the Bible found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These are often referred to as Mosaic Law, named after the biblical figure of Moses who delivered them. There are over 600 regulations Moses passed on to people in the aforementioned books and in Numbers and Exodus, according to Bible Gateway.

According to the Christian view, as influenced by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), it divides the Mosaic laws into moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.

Moral laws (or principles): These are the major laws found in the Ten Commandments and more. These are still binding today.

Civil laws: These were directed at daily living for the Israelites and regulated things such as marriage, divorce, property rights, etc. They are a guide for proper conduct, according to Trusting in Jesus. These were laws for the Israelites and are not binding for Christians today.

Ceremonial laws: These laws are related to how the Israelites worshiped God. They define rituals, festivals and more. They still apply to the Jews today. They do not apply to Christians.

Now with the above understanding, let’s re-examine the Bible verse regarding tattoos and cuttings into the flesh again.

Does the Bible say tattooing, piercing, etc., is wrong?

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 19:28

Before getting to the answer of whether tattooing is right or wrong, knowledge of Israelite traditions and what this verse was referring to at the time the Bible was written will give you a thorough understanding and an argument to make regarding tattooing and piercing today.

Bible scholar and ancient languages expert Dr. Michael Heiser addresses the topic in a YouTube video and says we can pick up clues from Leviticus 21.

Heiser points out that this chapter talks about contact with the dead and making oneself ritually “unclean,” according to Jewish ceremonial traditions. In the traditions of the Israelites, it was seen as “unclean” to have contact with a dead body. (See Ezekiel 44:25).

In verse five, reference is made to shaving the flesh’s head, beard, and cuttings. Again, regards to being ceremonially unclean.

Heiser says these early verses refer to the cleanliness of an ordinary priest. Later verses will be directed at the high priest, stricter rules. Heiser points out that this specifies whether a priest can willingly make himself unclean by contact with a dead relative.

Heiser says we can draw further reference from Leviticus 19:26-29, in which the remarks on tattooing are grouped in with “a bunch of other rules.” What Heiser wants us to pay attention to is that this group of comments “have a religious flavor and context for these laws.” These were viewed as things other civilizations did, but not the Israelites, people who were loyal to God.

Tattoos were forbidden as ritual worship of idols, pagan practices

“The practices listed are all associated in some way with religious practices practiced by pagans,” Heiser says, referencing a reading of Leviticus 19:26-29 and Leviticus 21. “The context was…We don’t do this as a follower of Yahweh [God]…As a priest of Yahweh.”

“Everything listed here was well known as having that context…What an Israelite would look at and say is an idolatrous ritual,” Heiser says. “That’s at the heart of why these things are prohibited.”

Heiser also points to the practice of consuming blood as being forbidden. Blood is seen as a life force reserved only for God. The same idea with divination, that it is going around God to consult other gods and spirit beings for divine information.

Heiser says that blood, hair, and semen symbolized life force in the ancient world.

The reason for hair being on the list was that “it grew,” says Heiser. “It was perceived as being alive because it grows – just like a plant.”

“Consequently… Priests were not to cut their hair or beard short.”

Summing it up: Is tattooing forbidden today?

While Heiser did not give a definitive yes or no answer in the video, what can be drawn from his explanation of the context is that the laws against tattooing and cuts in the skin were ceremonial, mostly aimed at Israelite priests, and therefore not applicable to Christians today.