Prohibition Against Tattoos and Beard Trimming

by | Sep 27, 2019

I recently reviewed your October 2016 article addressing tattoos.

 

It appears that your argument of “our bodies do not belong to us but to God” and the command not to tattoo being an application of the principle of “be holy because Yahweh is holy” could also be used for the preceding verse about not rounding off the hair on our temples or marring the edges of our beards.

 

Why do we keep the prohibition on tattooing, but not the prohibitions of verse 27?

 

—Jon

Dear Jon,

Good question. I’m honored you asked and didn’t simply dismiss my argument.

Leviticus 19:27-28 reads, “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am Yahweh.”

Two Old Testament texts help me understand this passage. They are Leviticus 21:5-6 and Deuteronomy 14:1. These passages forbid cutting practices associated with mourning for the dead.

Leviticus 21:5-6 reads, “They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they present the offerings by fire to Yahweh, the food of their God; so they shall be holy.”

This passage occurs in a larger discussion (21:1-6) of ways in which priests are not to profane themselves for the dead. Leviticus 21:1-3 prohibits priests from touching a dead person, unless they are an immediate relative. Leviticus 21:4 prohibits a priest from burying any of his relatives by marriage (as opposed to the blood relatives of vv. 2-3), including his wife (NET Bible note).

Given this understanding of verses 1-4, Leviticus 21:5-6 prohibits practices associated with mourning for the dead. Priests must not shave their heads, cut their beards, or make cuts in their flesh because they are holy to God. That is, they have been separated to God for the special purpose of presenting the offerings by fire to Yahweh.

What strikes me about this passage is that God says such practices “profane the name of their God.” Expressing grief by such cutting practices failed to sanctify Yahweh’s reputation as He deserves. As God’s people and priests (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5) we bear His name. How we act sanctifies or profanes His name before a watching world.

Deuteronomy 14:1 reads, “You are the sons of Yahweh your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead. For you are a holy people to Yahweh your God, and Yahweh has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

Here Yahweh calls His people “sons” and repeats the prohibition against self-cutting for the dead. Such practices are inconsistent with being sons of Yahweh, a holy people, chosen out of all the peoples on the earth.

Here’s the bottom line: Shaving of beard, head hair, or forehead hair, as well as gashing one’s body, were all pagan mourning practices for the dead (see also Jer. 16:6; 41:5; 47:5; Isa. 22:12).

The prohibition against cutting the corners of the beard does not appear to be a universal prohibition against all beard-cutting. It appears to be a specific prohibition related to mourning practices. Should such practices exist today, I would argue they are prohibited on the grounds that God has the right to tell us how to mourn—not as the gentiles who don’t know God.

Admittedly, one might argue that the tattoo prohibition is also related to pagan mourning practices. However, there are three reasons this doesn’t seem to be the case:

  1. Moses groups unrelated prohibitions in Leviticus 19, e.g., eating blood and practicing divination (v. 26), harlotry and keeping sabbaths (v. 29-30).
  2. No other OT passage associates tattoos with mourning practices.
  3. Our knowledge of the Ancient Near East does not suggest that it was a common practice to tattoo oneself for the dead.

What questions does that raise for you?

Thanks for having a conversation with me!

Blessings,
Phil

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