Here’s one that seems to come up every so often, usually from people who just recently started following Jesus or from young adults who want to get inked. I’ve got seven tats myself, and wouldn’t hesitate to get another one if I could afford it. But there is that verse in Leviticus …
Leviticus 19:28 You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.
So, what’s up? Are there millions of people with tats who are destined for hell? I’m sure there are some people who would tell you that and it’s probably just because they don’t like tats … and if they don’t then nobody should. God’s opinion, however, does not hinge on man’s biases. So let’s take a look at this verse, not just the verse itself, but the context of the verse (both the verses before and after this verse as well as the historical setting).
When I was an Anthropology student at Mississippi State University, I learned the importance of context through Archaeological Method. If a spear point was found plowed up in a field, then the context of that artifact is difficult to ascertain because the soil in which it sat has been disturbed. If another spear point is found in a freshly dug pit within a carefully maintained grid, then the context of that spear point is much easier to ascertain because the area around it may not have been disturbed. It retains context with its surroundings and with other artifacts that might be found alongside it. The same is true with scripture. To yank a verse out of the middle of fifty other verses takes away from the meaning of the verse. But, if that verse is read in context with the verses surrounding it, we can gleen a much fuller understanding.
Leviticus 19:26-31 ‘You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor shall you practice divination or soothsaying. You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD. ‘Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry, and the land become full of wickedness. ‘You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I amthe LORD. ‘Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.
So, using the verses before and after verse 28 we now see that these laws were given to Israel because the nation was surrounded by other peoples with religious practices that they needed to avoid. You see, at this time people in other cultures would tattoo images or symbols of their gods or idols on themselves or receive cuts or tats representing some aspect of idol worship. The practices discussed in the section of scripture above all relate to Israel staying steadfast following HaShem – G_D. If they adopted any of these rituals from their neighbors, it would be the beginning of a slippery slide into idolatry. The Hebrew words in this verse which have been translated “tattoo,”kethobeth qaaqa, occur only one time in the entire Bible … here, at this verse and literally mean cut to leave an imprint.
When people come into my office asking whether they will go to hell for getting a tattoo, I ask them if they are planning on worshipping it or using it to worship an idol. If it’s a distraction for you from following Jesus, then, no, you should not get a tat. If it’s dishonoring to the Lord, then no, you should not get it. What is the Holy Spirit telling you? Pray about it. If you feel a check about it then don’t do it.