Inking the Flesh: An Ancient No-No

(Note: this article does not exclude people who already have tattoos. If you have zero, it’s for those considering a first; if you have 18, it’s for those considering a 19th.)

Should I get a tattoo?

Yeah, sure. Go for it. You have nothing to lose–except an eternal spate of fiery reprobation by friends, family, and a legion of unseen elders with calculated sneers whom you fear in secret.

Just kidding.

But seriously: if you marshaled the courage to take this question to the internet and see what experts (not me) say about tattoos, you’ve found the right place (a non-expert expert). This may be the one of the few times you didn’t consult WebMD for an answer.

(But if you did consult WebMD AND you already have a tattoo, you’ve contracted at least 18 diseases by now.)

Maybe you came here because you saw an arrow, anchor, adage, or something in that alliterative category on a social influencer’s arm and thought, “I need that. That will add some tenor of coolness to this frame.” This is a tempting thought, especially when we want to complement ourselves in some way, which usually comes in exterior form.

I suggest you push back for a second.

First ask yourself what that tattoo will add to your abiding coolness. Will it give you more followers? Will it make you more devoted to your passions? Will it just add “needed” aesthetic to that blanched vessel you call your body?

It doesn’t matter if I need one. It means something special to me, and that’s all that matters.

Okay, you sold me. You made your case.

(I think it’s a bad case, though. Because you have failed to adduce reasons for your decision you have licensed every person you know and don’t know to ask you in depth what your tattoo means–and you’re obligated to answer [I’m totally going to ask you.].)

What does the Old Testament have to say about this [indelible] ink upon my arm, leg, or ineffable location beneath my clothes?

Glad ya asked! You’re reading this so I would have told you anyway.

The most oft-cited Scripture concerning tattoos–which happens to be one that is used in opposition to tattoos–is Leviticus 19:28. This command occurs amidst a litany of other prohibitions.

Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord. (NKJV)

This command by the Lord was in the context of a series of prohibitions to the children of Israel. They were continually conceding to the cultural assaults of idolatry, becoming swayed by the surrounding religious influences. You will see this pattern of failure all throughout the Book of Judges. This is a portent of it (and of our lives =]).

The issue here was the cultural assimilation between the Israelites and the other nations. God’s injunction, his plan for the children of Israel, was also clearly communicated in the following chapter:

 And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.

God wanted them–and us–to be holy and set apart: to not conform to their surroundings or whatever was trending. This command, by the way, is a stone laid for the “not of this world” foundation (John. 17:16). If we conform to the world and do as they do, we acquiesce to the influences of the world and thereby become stained (cf. James 1:27).

Let’s take a look. I’ll break up the Hebrew text by verbal structure (followed by my translation):


“Do not cut your bodies for the dead” (v’seret la-nephesh lo titnu bivsarkem), which translates directly to “and cuttings for the soul [trans. ‘dead’] do not give/put in your flesh.”

“or put tattoo marks on yourself” (u-k’tovet qa-a-qa lo titnu ba-khem), which translates directly to “or imprint [from writing] mark/incision [unknown derivation] print in it (your flesh)”


To clarify this mishmash, it’s saying “do not cut your body for the dead or incise marks in it.”

What’s vital to note in this command is that the phrase “tattoo mark” (k’tovet qa-a-qa) is–switching to Greek for a quick bit–called a hapax legomenon, “something [only] once.” This means that this phrase appears only once in the entire biblical canon. No where else do you see this string of words, or even qa-a-qa, in the Bible.

The single occurrence phenomenon makes it very difficult to make a case to prohibit tattoos based on a datum that can’t be corroborated by contextual evidence.

It’s like saying, “Hey, the word “chromophony” means the sensation of conflating color and sound at the same time, much like synesthesia.”

Now I made that word up (I neologized it, but it is not canonized [accepted into the English vernacular as a legitimate word]). But if I told you I didn’t make it up, how could you check my work? You wouldn’t be able to.

There’s no dictionary, or lexicon, we can use to adjudicate whether the word means what I’ve said it means. Such is the case with “tattoo mark.” We can’t look up “qa-a-qa” in a Hebrew lexicon and see what it meant in other contexts, because there are no other contexts.


The purview of this article was to assess the seminal text people refer to when tattoos come up in conversation. Much else can be said about the purposes and/or implications of getting tattoos, so I’ll leave some of that to you.


If you have a tattoo or are considering one (or several), Why?

(Oh, and for the forensic bunch: I do have a tattoo, but it’s in an obscure foreign language.)



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