by Al Maxey

Issue #438 ------- April 9, 2010
What is called fashion
is the tradition of the moment.

Goethe {1749-1832}

The Great Tattoo Taboo
The Teaching of Leviticus 19:28

The Lord God called the children of Israel to be His special possession, His chosen treasure. In many ways, the covenant into which He and they entered at Mt. Sinai was like unto the covenant of marriage. This people called forth from their Egyptian bondage would be His own precious bride. He, in turn, would be their faithful Husband: loving them, protecting them, providing for their every need, both physical and spiritual. He warned His new bride, however, that He expected their love and loyalty to be directed unto Him, and unto Him only. "For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" [Exodus 20:5]. Joshua, in his final speech before this people, as they settled the land of promise, reminded them again, "He is a holy God; He is a jealous God" [Joshua 24:19]. The Lord had Moses issue this charge: "Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" [Deut. 34:14]. Not only were the people of Israel to refrain from worshipping the various gods of the nations that surrounded them, but they were not even to intermarry with these people, nor were they to adopt their cultural and religious practices. They were to remain a separate people, holy unto the Lord God.

Within the writings of the Pentateuch, Jehovah specified in quite some detail exactly what He expected of His bride. Our God knew that the lure of the world would be a powerful one; that the tendency to accommodate one's own culture and beliefs to those of peoples nearby would be a matter of concern to One who sought to keep a pure people for His possession (and through whom He would bring forth the Messiah). Thus, He laid out quite carefully the parameters of their attitudes and actions in relationship to Himself and to those who lived around and among them. There were pagan practices, many of which were religious in nature, that were to be avoided at all cost. No compromise with their belief system (which was idolatrous) would be tolerated, for such could quickly corrupt the purity of the devotion of His beloved bride. They were not to dress like their neighbors, or cut their hair or trim their beards like their neighbors, or mark their bodies like their neighbors, for much of the way in which these peoples presented themselves outwardly had to do with their devotion to false gods. Thus, any accommodation to these many fashion styles would be a visible affront to the One True God.

Within this extensive body of instruction can be found the following injunction: "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord" [Leviticus 19:27-28]. The specific part of this passage that currently concerns us is the prohibition regarding "tattoo marks" on the body. This is a translation of the Hebrew qa'aqa' -- which occurs only here in the entire Bible. Our English word "tattoo" is actually Tahitian or Polynesian in origin (tatau): meaning to "mark, strike, imprint." We know that it was quite common among these peoples of the South Pacific (and still is to a certain extent) to tattoo themselves rather elaborately in honor of their deities. It was similar body markings among the pagan nations around Israel that God's people were to avoid, for such markings of the body were clearly associated with idolatrous religious rites.

These body markings were applied in various ways, some more permanent than others. In some cases, they were simply painted on, and thus could be removed after the religious or cultural event for which they were designed had been completed. This would be much like the "war paint" used by various primitive tribes (and even our own American Indians) prior to engagement with the enemy. Different designs might be painted upon various parts of the body for certain religious events. Such was often done during funerals in memory of the dead, in some cases to appeal to the gods to look favorably upon the departed. Indeed, it was such cuttings and markings of the body "for the dead" [Leviticus 19:28] that was the focus of the prohibition within the passage before us. Other markings of the body, however, were more permanent. Some were made by cutting the skin in such a fashion that visible scarring, which formed a specific design, occurred. In other instances, the skin was punctured in a predetermined pattern and a dye was inserted in these small holes that would color the skin permanently. This more resembled the tattoos with which we are familiar today.

It should be noted at this point that God did not forbid all markings of the human body. Indeed, there were times He spoke favorably (although figuratively) of such markings, as long as the reason for their use was in connection with HIS holy purposes. For example, in the vision of judgment against Jerusalem, the man clothed in linen was told to "go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it" [Ezekiel 9:4]. The angels were to kill the wicked, "but do not touch anyone who has the mark" [vs. 6]. Similarly, the book of Revelation speaks of the redeemed having the name of the Lord written upon them [Rev. 3:12]. The Lord God even speaks of such markings upon Himself in remembrance of His people -- "See, I have engraved you upon the palms of My hands" [Isaiah 49:16]. The instructions of God to His people were to be "like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead" [Exodus 13:9, 16; cf. Deut. 6:8; 11:18]. Therefore, it is not so much the markings or cuttings/engravings themselves that were declared objectionable, but the purpose motivating them. This is a critical principle to keep in mind. "There was nothing morally wrong with cutting the hair or the beard or with tattooing" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 608]. The "wrong" of it lay in the "why" of it. If bodily marking itself was morally wrong in the sight of God, then so also would be the cutting of one's hair and the trimming of one's beard. Such universal prohibition, of course, utterly misses the point of the prohibition. Even the ancient Jewish rabbis understood this distinction, for in the Mishnah (Makkoth 3.6) we find Rabbi Simeon declaring that a person is not culpable for markings on his flesh "unless he writes there the name of a god" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1664]. Rabbi Simeon then quotes Leviticus 19:28.

The overall context of the statement before us actually sets forth the parameters of it. God's concern is that His people not become enamored with the cultural and religious practices of their idolatrous neighbors, and in the case of fleshly cuttings and markings the concern was specifically with regard to (as is stated in the verse) their rites associated with the dead. By embracing their various practices they were at least sending the signal (whether intended or not) that they may be somewhat in sympathy with their theology, and such an opening to wider association could very quickly lead to a departure from their covenant relationship with the One True God (which, in fact, proved to be the case). Therefore, "the rites and ceremonies by which the pagans expressed their sorrow at their funerals must not be imitated" by the people of God [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, via e-Sword].

At this point the reader might be wondering why I have taken the time to explain the context of this statement about markings in the flesh that was given by the Lord to His people. The reason is that for many years Christians have been using this passage as the "proof text" that those who get a tattoo are sinning against God. "The Bible says not to do it!!" Of course, the very same passage says not to cut your sideburns or trim your beard, but that is conveniently left out. "Tattoos are a SIN ... It says so right there in Leviticus!" End of discussion!! The problem is --- this is not the teaching of that passage. The teaching of the passage, as given to the people of Israel as they settled the land of promise, was that they were not to imitate the idolatrous practices of their neighbors (specifically, in this case, with respect to the rites associated with the dead). It really and truly wasn't about God's desire to see unshorn hair or unmarked flesh, it was about an inner purity that could quickly be compromised by association with pagan religious practices.

I know a lot of people who have tattoos; you probably do as well ... you may even have a tattoo. Did these people (did you) get these tattoos to pay homage to a pagan god? Some might have. Most, however, simply regarded it, most likely, as a visible and decorative means of personal self-expression. It is simply a form of body ornamentation. Do you have pierced ears? Would this fall under the "biblical ban" with respect to cuttings of the body? If not, why not?! Do you cut your hair; trim your beard? What about women who wear makeup on their faces? Is this a painting/marking of the body? I've seen some pretty gaudy displays!! The reality is: people of every culture, both primitive and modern, have used their bodies as a "canvas," in one way or another, to make some statement about who and what they are, or how they would like to be perceived by others. What determines the acceptability of such decor, both in the eyes of God and men, is (1) the nature of our motivation, and (2) the nature of the markings. The youth and family minister where I serve has several tattoos. On his arm is one that simply says "forgiven." On his wrists are the words "imago dei" (in the image of God). His motivation? To provide visible testimony of who and what he is --- a man created in the image of God and forgiven by His grace. It has opened doors for him to witness to others. If, on the other hand, he had a large tattoo of a naked woman on his arm, I would have some serious doubts as to his "godly motivation."

Tattoos and piercings are a personal choice. I have neither, and, further, have no desire whatsoever to acquire either. Ever! They are not for me. But, neither will I condemn another for having a preference other than my own. God nowhere condemns this practice; thus, neither shall I. What I will do, however, is caution such people to carefully consider their motivation for such markings, and I will also advise them to consider how such markings might influence their Christian testimony unto others. I think a young man with hoops in his ear lobes, plugs in his tongue, shafts through his nose, and a dragon tattooed around his neck and crawling up the side of his face, and wearing his hair in a purple mohawk just might have a hard time being taken seriously by most people!! On the other hand, I'm forced to admit that he just might be able to reach a small group of people who would never take me seriously!! I guess what I am trying to say is that we should not write someone off just because they appear different to us. There is room in the Family of God for all shapes and sizes of siblings!! At the same time, let us search our own hearts to determine our motivation for wanting to appear different. And remember: "Blessed is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves" [Romans 14:22].

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Dear Brother Al, I really enjoyed your Reflections #199 regarding the combining of various "acts of worship" (such as the Lord's Supper and singing). I read this yesterday morning (Easter). It is funny how God throws these little "coincidences" our way! My wife's dad was admitted into a local hospital here about a week ago because of complications from a cancer with which he currently suffers. While visiting the hospital on Saturday, my wife's step-mother mentioned that she had met a minister there on the oncology floor whose wife is there (and who is in the final stages of her cancer). My wife's step-mother mentioned that this minister had held an impromptu "Good Friday" service on the floor the day before, and that it had made quite an impression upon her. He stated he would be leading a Sunday morning Easter service there in the Solarium (the family meeting room). Before leaving the hospital Saturday, we ran into this minister, who serves a Methodist congregation about an hour away, and had the pleasure of visiting with him. My wife and I were both very impressed with this man's faith, so we later made plans to come to the hospital to attend this Easter service.

When we got to the service yesterday morning, you can imagine the strong emotions as we watched cancer patients wheeled in by wheelchair, others walking along with their monitors/IV stands, and all with their families and friends coming right alongside them. The nurses were even kind enough to bring the minister's wife to the service, rolling her bed right outside the double doors to the Solarium!! That's right: bed and all. Al, I sometimes read a lot of garbage on various Church of Christ Internet sites about "the denominations" and their "false practices and beliefs." However, this minister delivered one of the most beautiful, Scripture-based lessons on the Lord's resurrection that I've ever heard!! He then brought out the elements of the Lord's Supper for all who wanted to partake. He made mention of our various Christian backgrounds and religious denominations, yet he stated that none of this really mattered as we all prepared our individual hearts to share in this memorial to our Lord and Savior. To watch him lead these sick and dying people in worship to God was truly touching, although I'm sure the legalists would have had a field day over what they regarded as being "wrong." The bread was leavened, a woman stood up front, singing quietly (playing a guitar also), while the minister broke the bread and went around the room distributing it. His two young adult daughters carried the grape juice close behind. Al, this "wrong" Lord's Supper was one of THE most beautiful, touching, God-glorifying events in which I have ever taken part!! I felt as close to God, and to these fellow Christians, and perhaps even closer, as I ever have at any Church of Christ congregation during Communion, even though I had never met most of these people in my life. It is funny how God times things --- such as me "just happening" to read your above mentioned Reflections article early that same Easter morning, which He used to prepare my heart for what was about to happen. Brother Al, please keep fighting against the legalistic heresy that plagues our churches!! Hearts need to change!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, For over 30 years I experienced considerable abuse within the ultra-conservative wing of the Church of Christ and at the hands of their legalistic preachers. So it is truly "a breath of fresh air" knowing that there are those like you who are working to open the eyes of our brethren to Truth. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate what you are doing!! God bless you!!

From an Actor/Writer/Producer in Hollywood:

Dear Brother Al, It is an honor to know you. What's more, you've defied my philosophy about contacting preachers. I always said: If you like a preacher, just keep liking him ... but do not contact him, for once you get to know him, you'll like him less and less. I call them "Hollywood Preachers," as they are like movie stars (or other celebrities) that one might like through their performances, but once you meet them in person you see what shallow people they really are. I've met a few stars like this, and I've met several preachers like this. I used to approach preachers at gospel meetings and try to talk with them, only to be treated by them worse than a heathen and a publican. Al, you and Dallas Burdette are two of the most intelligent preachers that I know. You both have huge followings (you are celebrities), but you are very down-to-earth and personable. I think in the Bible it's called "the spirit of Christ." Al, I appreciate far more than you probably realize the fact that I can actually reach out and "touch" you -- i.e., that you actually care enough about me to write me back personally! Brother, I know your readers really appreciate this about you. Thank you, and I'll write you later about my upcoming Hollywood projects.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Bro. Al, It was so great to meet you and talk with you at The Tulsa Workshop, and also at the Cracker Barrel restaurant. I first met Edward Fudge at last year's workshop. You and Fudge are two of my favorite writers, and it was really exciting for me to see you two together this year, and to have my picture taken together with the two of you by my granddaughter!! I hope to show that photo of the three of us to each of my friends (A miniature of this photo may be seen at left. The elder is in the middle and Edward is on the right -- Al Maxey). Al, the workshop was GREAT, wasn't it? We have attended for about 25 years now. I always leave inspired ... and usually with several books. This year I purchased your book (Down, But Not Out) and a couple more. May God continue to bless you as you work in His kingdom.

From a Minister in Missouri:

Brother Al, It was great to finally meet you and Shelly in person. I enjoyed all three of your sermons at The Tulsa Workshop. Your illustration with the tables was great!! I have several people on Facebook who are starting to realize that I'm sitting at a "red table" instead of a "black table" where they're seated. They are very upset about that, and are now trying to pull the chair out from under me. Speaking of chairs, your "table sermon" and Rick Atchley's "chair sermon" would make a great "one-two punch" for Sunday morning and evening!! God bless you, brother.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Bro. Al, I am so happy to see your Reflections return (after your week off to speak at The Tulsa Workshop). My week is not complete without my prescription of the good news you share with us. I so look forward to each issue!! Unfortunately, military duties prevented me from attending the workshop this year. However, I'm already making plans to attend next year, and will be taking leave in order to be there. I want you to know that your Reflections are having an impact upon my family. A dear friend recently called me and told me that she had read a recent issue that I had forwarded to her. She indicated that she was really touched by what you wrote, and she has asked for more. She has been entrenched in legalism for many years, but now I can hear the glimmer of freedom in her voice, thanks to your powerful writings. Al, don't ever give up!!

From a Reader in Oregon:

Dear Brother Al, The tears were flowing as I was reading your Reflections on your Tulsa experience. Proud? Not even close to being enough of a description from your former high school English/Journalism teacher. I am ecstatic!! What a wonderful human being you are! As one said, "you are a lucky man." Actually, we are all lucky to know and love you. Thanks for being who you are and for sharing with me after all these years. I will always claim you as "one of mine." Hopefully, you will make a trip to Oregon one of these days. I would like for you to meet another dear friend --- a former college professor and Church of Christ minister. He, too, is a wonderful person, and has now joined us here and serves on our council and sings in our choir. We feel so lucky to have him at our church! You two would have a lot in common. I would love to see you again, and to meet Shelly. What a great couple you make. I'm so glad things went so well in Tulsa. I smile each time I think about you standing before that crowd. Wow! My shy young man! Whew ... the tears!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Bro. Al, After reading your last Reflections on The Tulsa Workshop, I am now doubly sorry that I was not able to make it this year. However, I am glad to learn that your talks are being made available on CD through Workshop Multimedia. A good friend and Christian brother, who reads your Reflections and sends you comments from time to time, was there, and he reported what an outstanding job you did in your three talks.

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