I’m fond of tattoos. I don’t have any, but I think that well-done ink is artistic. It can be a reflection of who we are, what we’re about, or our experiences. I was recently reminded of them because of an article about the discovery of women’s tattoos in ancient Egypt posted by Dr. Claude Mariottini. I thought of Leviticus 19:28:
“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (ESV).
The prohibition against tattoos in this verse comes directly after the reference to making marks on the body “for the dead.” In the study of Scripture, an important thing to keep in mind is placement. Order does not always matter for direct interpretation, but it does for emphasis.
We know that in ancient Egypt, most of their rituals were not to communicate moral teaching but were intended to bring magical or spiritual protection. The Israelite prohibition was likely directed toward this type of practice of making marks on the body to ward off the dead. This was essentially then, an idolatrous practice.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he tells us that we are no better or worse off if we eat or do not eat (1Cor 8:8). Food itself has no power to commend us to God. However, he warns not to let our freedom in Christ cause another to stumble. Just because we have that knowledge, it does not mean that others do. We need to manage perceptions.
So then, each must manage the dictates of his or her own heart. The Israelites were commanded to refrain because those who were doing this practice around them were doing it to worship idols.
That context makes a difference. Jesus said that the Law and the prophets all hang on this: to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (Mat 22:37; Mar 12:30; Luk 10:27). The rules or commands were given to keep Israel holy: giving their undivided attention to YHWH. If anything gets in the way of this, we are to refrain from it.
So whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord. And if you refrain, refrain as unto the Lord. Be respectful of the conclusions that others make in their honoring of the Lord.
What about fruit?
This refresher has led me to an inspiring observation on fruit. As I was looking at commentaries about this verse, I came across Dr. Ephraim Radner’s Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Leviticus. Prior to the verse on body markings, the 19th chapter of Leviticus builds a case for holiness as divine fruitfulness. The prohibition against eating the fruit of a tree during the first 3 years is the same Hebrew word for “uncircumcision.” The command was not to eat of the uncircumcised or forbidden fruit until it had become circumcised. Odd, but interesting. Radner makes the following connection:
“Holiness is the work of creation, the giving of life. By the same token, the works of creation-which are bound to the ordering of fluids and family, of mutual care and trust-are, in their derivation from God’s self-offering, sanctifying…Many of the more obvious laws enumerated here-obvious in the sense of their assumed moral substance-fall within this same current of divine sharing of life, which once embraced becomes a profound change in the character of the obedient follower of God” (pp. 210; 212)”
The partaking of the fruit before it had reached its 5th year was like serving the wine before its time, so-to-speak. If anyone has tried to start an apple tree, you know that the first fews years’ fruit should not be eaten. The fruit is too bitter. It’s not ready for consumption. So in terms of God’s community, the uncircumcised represent a potential threat to dividing our attention away from God. The point is not physical circumcision but spiritual: a circumcision of the heart. The act of waiting or circumcision was one of faith: separation. The very acts are sanctifying. When we take time out to wait upon the Lord, we are doing an act of sanctification.
The proper ordering of life can even begin with such mundane tasks. How the community of believers structures life has an impact on their very character. Starting with what we call “white lies” eventually leads to slander (Lev 19:15); a little unrestrained anger leads to disdain of neighbors (Lev 19:16) and so on.
Not every reason behind a prohibition in the Old Testament is easy to understand. Some simply require to be taken by faith. That faith leads to “profound change in the character of the obedient.” We may not always understand what comes our way in life, but through acting on faith we reap the perfect work that intends to shape our character and sanctify us.