Tattoos and the Ancient Near East

Tattoos, within our society they’ve become increasingly popular. You can get a tattoo of just about anything, placed just about anywhere. Back in the WWII era, tattoos weren’t so common. Sure, some soldiers had some tattoos, those soldiers were usually considered the really bad dudes, the tough guys. Moving forward, tattoos were prevalent in biker gangs and prison inmates. Tattoos became a symbol of how tough you were. But tattoos were also used to display the person you loved. It was supposed to symbolize the permanency of that relationship. As time wore on tattoos became ever increasingly popular, till today where you can get a tattoo about anything, for any reason. I’ve heard of some who have used tattoos to let emergency personnel know about their disabilities. I got the concepts discussed in this past paragraph from the following sources. 1CORRELATES OF TATTOOS AND REFERENCE GROUPS 2Tattoos and body piercings in the United States: A national data set 3An Ironic Fad: The Commodification and Consumption of Tattoos

One thing that has remained constant is peoples belief that the Bible, that God banned tattoos. Lev 19:28 sure seems to support that notion, but are we reading it right? Or is there something more? Are we projecting our culture, our understanding on to the verse, and maybe misunderstanding it? Is there something more? One thing is for sure, it’s a very predominant belief.

I watched a PBS show called “Iceman Reborn“.4Iceman Reborn It’s about a person that was buried in the mountains for the last five thousand years. Because he’s so old he has to be kept in a special way or he’ll disintegrate. In order to study him better, they needed to make a replica of him. One of the things they noticed about this guy is that he has sixty-one tattoos, but these tattoos aren’t like the ones we’re used to seeing. What they find out is that the tattoos were a way to administer medication. The Smithsonian 5Smithsonian also has an article on the iceman’s tattoos. This got me wondering about Lev 19:28, about the apparent ban of tattoos, according to scripture.

One thing I have been learning over the past couple of years, since I came to Torah, is ‘context, context, context’. So this made me look at the verses surrounding Lev 19:28 and I found that the context starts at verse 26, where it connects life and death with divination and soothsaying. There is much more going on here than just banning writing on flesh with in. Lev 19:28 cross references to Lev 21:5; Deut 14:1; 1 Kings 18:28; Jer 16:6. The reference to 1 Kings reminded me of a video I saw a while ago. In this video was a group of Muslim men with machetes and they were frantically cutting themselves in some sort of ritualistic frenzy. Also keep in mind, that the 1 Kings 18 scripture is the face-off with Elijah and the four hundred prophets of Ba’al. If you’re not familiar with it, I encourage you to read it.

This got me curious about the cultural history, the anthropology, that is behind this, so I looked up ‘tattoos ancient near east6tattoos ancient near east and ‘Canaanite funeral rituals7Canaanite funeral rituals and a couple other variations of the search strings. The first things I noticed in my search ‘tattoos ancient near east’ was ‘Slavery in the Ancient Near East8Slavery in the Ancient Near East and ‘Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law9Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law page 1667 of the document which says “…slave-marks: in Old Babylonian the abbuttum, which was a mark or tattoo applied to a slave’s shaven head…”. Naturally this lead me to check out ‘abbuttum’, which then lead me to check out ‘Laws of Eshnunna‘.10Laws of Eshnunna ‘Abbuttum’ can be defined either as a hairdo peculiar to slaves, or a tattoo or mark on the body of a slave”. 11The Biblical Prohibition Against Tattooing* I. Mourning Practices in the Ancient Near East pages 62-69 I feel like I have reasonably established that it was a custom to tattoo, or mark slaves in the Ancient Near East.

When it came to trying to understand the verses prior (starting at verse twenty-six) and going to verse twenty-nine, and the corresponding references to death, and especially in verse twenty-nine where it talks about prostitution, I was confused. At first I thought the references to death were about mourning, but as I pondered this, and researched it, it became clear it wasn’t about mourning. What could it be then? Are they just disjointed verses? As I continued my research, and even tried different queries, it eventually became clear to me. In a nineteen page article The Biblical Prohibition Against Tattoos written in 2013, by John Huehnergard and Harold Liebowitz, after the Introduction, their first point is ‘Mourning Practices in the Ancient Near East’ in which they discuss the mourning practices listed in the bible, mourning rituals like sackcloth and ashes, bowed heads to the ground, rending garments, screaming and wailing, were among common mourning practices. The article goes on to discuss about cutting, slashing, and ‘gashing’ as a mourning practice, and cites a Ugaritic source called ‘Lament of Baal’ found inThe Baal Cycle of Myths KTU 1.1-1.612The Baal Cycle of Myths KTU 1.1-1.6 and ‘KTU 1.6 Column I Lines 32 – 5513KTU 1.6 Column I Lines 32 – 55 and ‘BAAL AND YAHWEH IN THE OLD TESTAMENT: A FRESH EXAMINATION OF THE BIBLICAL AND EXTRA-BIBLICAL DATA14BAAL AND YAHWEH IN THE OLD TESTAMENT: A FRESH EXAMINATION OF THE BIBLICAL AND EXTRA-BIBLICAL DATA, with in the ‘Ugaritic Baal Myth’, also known as ‘Ugaritic Baal Cycle’. So while it discussed mourning rituals, and cutting, it really didn’t address the passage of scripture we are concerned with. I read a commentary by Albert Barnes, pertaining to verse twenty-seven, about beards and hair cutting that said: “Round the corners of your heads – This may allude to such a custom as that of the Arabs described by Herodotus. They used to show honor to their deity Orotal by cutting the hair away from the temples in a circular form. Compare the margin reference.” I spent a lot of time trying to find this deity, Orotal, mentioned in this commentary. Other than this commentary, and another, that I forget off hand, there wasn’t any other reference or mention of this. I asked around too, but no one else heard of, or knew about this ‘Orotal’ deity. If I had been a dog, I’d have been chasing my tail. At least, that’s what it felt like trying to find out about this ‘Orotal’ deity and mourning rituals and tattoos.

I also checked with rabbinical commentary and literature, thank you Sefaria 15Sefaria, for more information on tattoos, and the corresponding passages. What was interesting was that they added an element of idolatry to the subject. Mishnah Makkot 3:6 says that if you write without perforating, or perforate without writing, that he is not liable for lashes. Makkot 21a says that if you write HaShem’s name, you are not liable. There are seven references to tattoos, at Sefaria, one even relating to gentiles and cheese. It’s interesting to say the least, but really didn’t help the matter.

After mulling this over for a few days, and discussing the matter with some friends who assisted me in my research, it just dawned on me that it wasn’t about mourning after all. No! Verses twenty-six through twenty-nine all fit together. Once I began to think about the verses as relating to each other, and all that I had learned, above, that it all started to click. While it wasn’t about mourning rituals, it did involve temples and death and prostitution, and all that the verses discuss from verse twenty-six to verse twenty-nine. In fact, verse twenty-six is the key to the whole thing. In fact, one of the cross references is 1 Kings 18:28, which is where Elijah is confronting the prophets of Baal, and in verse twenty-eight, they are cutting themselves, gashing themselves, just as God instructed not to do in Lev 19:26-29. We also have the witch of Endor in 1 Sam 28:3-25. She was committing necromancy, or communicating with the dead, also called divination, which Lev 19:26 tells us not to do. I hope, at this point, it’s beginning to dawn on you what they all have in common, how they all tie into each other. Now, let’s revisit verse twenty-eight. It says that we are not to make cuts on ourselves for the dead or a tattoo. Notice how it references the dead, just as in verse twenty-six. Verse twenty-six is about death and divination, interpreting omens, soothsaying. The Hebrew word for soothsaying is H6049 anan and can mean bring, practice soothsaying, and so on. The Hebrew word nachash H5172 can mean divination, to learn secret things, observe signs and omens. Very similar to anan. So the tattoos, in context, has to do with necromancy, temple cult of the dead worship, divination, sorcery, and so on. Even the prostitution mentioned in verse twenty-nine, is all part of that. Matthew Vander Els, from Founded in Truth ministries has an excellent series on the Afterlife, that goes into the cult of the dead, and other things. I highly recommend it.The following source, I believe, confirms my conclusion. DIVERSIONS OF PLEASURE: SINGING SLAVE GIRLS AND THE POLITICS OF MUSIC IN THE EARLY ISLAMIC COURTS (661-1000CE): THEIR INFLUENCE, HISTORY AND CULTURAL ROLES AS SEEN THROUGH THE KITĀB ALMUWASHSHA (BOOK OF BROCADE) OF IBN AL-WASHSHA, THE RISALA AL-QIYĀN (EPISTLE ON THE SINGING GIRLS) OF AL-JAHIZ, AND THE DHAMM ALMALĀHĪ (CENSURE OF INSTRUMENTS OF DIVERSION) OF IBN ABI’L DUNYA 16DIVERSIONS OF PLEASURE: SINGING SLAVE GIRLS AND THE POLITICS OF MUSIC IN THE EARLY ISLAMIC COURTS (661-1000CE): THEIR INFLUENCE, HISTORY AND CULTURAL ROLES AS SEEN THROUGH THE KITĀB ALMUWASHSHA (BOOK OF BROCADE) OF IBN AL-WASHSHA, THE RISALA AL-QIYĀN (EPISTLE ON THE SINGING GIRLS) OF AL-JAHIZ, AND THE DHAMM ALMALĀHĪ (CENSURE OF INSTRUMENTS OF DIVERSION) OF IBN ABI’L DUNYA

So does that mean that tattoos would have been accepted, or maybe if I put it in a better vernacular, it might be easier, would body art have been accepted in the Ancient Near East? No, I don’t think so. First, they might think you’re a slave, aside from that it would carry with it a lot of negative connentations that one would not want. Now, there is the tattoos, that were done for the application of medicine, but those were in specific places, for specific purposes. I don’t see much of an issue in that case. The tattoos, body art, that we do today, is very different from what Lev 19:28 is saying. I don’t think anyone is going to the local tattoo parlor to divine, or communicate with the dead, and commit prostitution. In today’s culture, tattoos are an art form, where the body is the canvas. Now, understand, I am not condoning it. I’m not saying, let’s all rush out and get tattoos. All I’m saying is that in context, that ‘tattoos’ mentioned in Lev 19:26-29 does not fit what we call tattoos today. Beyond that, I’d say it’s between you and God.

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Posted on May 18, 2017 in Ancient Near East, Answering Tough Questions

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About the Author

Jonathan lives in Glendale, AZ He has been pursuing Torah since late Aug of 2014. He has a heart for teaching the Bible while not losing focus on bringing in scholarly sources from archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics.

Responses (2)

  1. Wrenn
    May 19, 2017 at 9:06 am · Reply

    Thank you for your research and attention to detail! I had to chuckle at the rabbit trail of information that brought you back around to the context of Leviticus 19:28.

    • Jon
      May 19, 2017 at 3:49 pm · Reply

      Yeah, it really was funny. I wrote it the way I did, to take the reader on the journey with me, researching, and investigating stuff. When I first started it, I was thinking one thing, but by the end, I had come to a different conclusion, and I wanted the reader to come along too.

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