“Demons watch you through the ink of your tattoos”, my daughter’s friend told her a few weeks ago, “when you have tattoos you give them a door into your life. My grandfather told me so”.
My daughter was discussing some contemporary matters of the day during a youth group meeting, and she came to chat to me about this a while later.
“Dad, where in the Bible does it say that the devil can watch us through the ink of tattoos on our skin?
Um. I think in the Book of Grandfathers, chapter 9 verse 4.
You probably have strong personal views on tattoos, maybe strongly negative ones like our grandfather here. Or perhaps you think of it more liberally, even that a tattoo might be a conversation starter around your Christian faith. Clearly the girl’s grandfather is not so accommodating, and he chose to use the Bible, or rather some Biblical characters, to add a bit of weight to his views. The friend accepted this as fact. Christian fact.
And there we have it, we’re
teaching as doctrines of God the commandments of men – Mark 7:7
The Bible does have something to say about tattoos, but more about that a little later.
Let’s explore this situation a bit further. Here you have a teenage girl who believes that tattoos give the devil some kind of foothold in the life of the one who has them. Let’s walk through a scenario… the girl goes to a school sports day, and she watches a friend’s hockey match. Among the cheers and excitement, she notices an older girl next to her has a tattoo on her inner forearm. She remembers what she has been told by Grandpa. What goes through her mind?
“Is there a demon walking with this girl?”. “Can the devil hurt me because I am close to her?”. “Do I put some distance between us?”. “Mmm, it does sound kind of silly. Maybe tattoos don’t have anything to do with the devil”. “Is the devil even real?”. “I feel a bit awkward discussing this with people because they might just laugh at me”. “Wait a minute, I will just pray that God will protect me, just in case”.
There we have it. A well-intentioned warning from Grandpa is used to build a biblical hedge around tattoos. It creates all kinds of doubts and anxiety in the heart and mind of the girl in our story. Worse, any conversation about this with the tattoo’d girl will (probably) not go well. Any attempt at a rational conversation will (probably) result in a diminished view of the Christian faith and lifestyle.
This post is not about tattoos, but rather the hedges we build around topics which are well-intentioned but ultimately without any Biblical grounding.
Other examples of hedges
Can you think of a few areas where you might have been building some hedges around a Biblical topic? Maybe you grew up in a house where you have been taught that any kind of dancing is a sin. Or that wearing your Dr. Martins in church might get you thrown out (or at least attract a few haughty glances). Perhaps you have been pressured to try to speak in tongues, but you have failed to produce the desired verbiage. You now draw some doubtful looks from your fellow churchgoers.
Or perhaps it is something much more subtle. As someone who frequents Christian circles, are you expected to always talk in a certain tone? Have a certain demeanour? Act in a certain way, even if it’s contrary to how you’re really feeling, really thinking, or really battling with some doubts in your mind? Ronel and I call this wearing the Christian Jacket – when it is not really expected of a Christ follower to be open, transparent or vulnerable but rather polished, straightened and “looking the part”.
These are all examples of mostly well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed hedges around the Bible which cause us in some way to be hypocrites.
Jesus and the hypocrites
Jesus had to deal with the same thing many times during the days when he walked the earth. Mark 7:1-23 records some verbal sparring between him and the Pharisees. They were masters of building hedges around the Mosaic law. I love how Jesus just cuts through the noise and deal with the actual problem at hand in this passage. So what was the actual problem here?
The problem was hedge building.
The origin of the Pharisaical Hedges
We have to give the Pharisees some credit. This Jewish faction was started soon after the Maccabean Revolt (165–160 B.C.). When Jesus walked the earth, the Pharisaical faction was around 200 years old. They were originally quite committed to be faithful to Yahweh. They wanted to make sure they don’t go into the same slip-slide mentality of the Israelites before the Babylonian exile. The exile refers to a time of great backsliding by the Jews almost 600 years before Jesus was born. Their unfaithfulness caused them to be taken against their will to Babylon (modern day Iraq). It lasted for 70 years. To avoid anything similar they threw themselves into the law to make sure they don’t trespass so much again. Over time, they made their own laws so that they will not come near breaking the actual laws laid down by Moses in the Pentateuch. They built hedges around the law, in other words. Unfortunately, in time, these hedges became more important than the Old Testament laws itself. While the letter of the law was well-known and protected by the hedges, the spirit of the law was lost to them.
The “guilty” Jesus
So, what were the Pharisees on about in Mark 7? They sent a fact-finding committee to investigate this Jesus. The Pharisees were angry. They were upset. They were also irritated. And irked. And annoyed. And on their holy horses. And affronted. You get the idea?
Why were they so upset, you may ask?
Well, because Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate.
Yes that’s right, they didn’t wash their hands. The Pharisees had some rules, you see.
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. – Mark 7:3-4
Well, it was about the disciples’ “dirty hands”, but actually more about the fact that they didn’t
…walk in the tradition of the elders – Mark 7:5
The Pharisees tried to wrap Jesus on the knuckles not for some Mosaic law he was breaking, but because he didn’t hold to the Tradition of the Elders. Do you think that is a wise thing to accuse the Son of God of?
So, the King of kings takes out his warm theological knife and slices nicely through the butter of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy…
There is something we can really learn from Jesus at this point. How did he answer his accusers following their incriminating questions? He responds from Scripture. Here he quotes Isaiah 29:13:
This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
Jesus knew his Bible, of course. Not only that, as the pre-existing Son of God he inspired it no less. And he frequently reverts to Scripture to answer his opponents and to deal with his accusers. He even used that against Satan during his temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11).
After quoting Isaiah, he continues to highlight how the Pharisees’ “traditions” are actually causing real pain and suffering, including to their own parents.
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God) – then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” – Mark 7:9-13
What was this all about? Essentially, the Pharisees wanted to be known more for their so called holiness than for their compassion. They were giving money and possessions to religious causes without looking after their own parents first. To add insult to injury they use “the church” as an excuse to neglect their duties of responsibility toward their parents.
So, the Pharisees keep on missing the point. Jesus says it is not about washing your hands or what goes into your mouth that makes you “unclean”, but rather what comes out of the heart that defiles a person. He lists a few examples of what might come out of our hearts…
evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. – Mark 7:21-22
Do any of these items resonate with you? I wonder if it struck a chord with any of the Pharisees. Or were they so self-deceived that they just deflected these words like some arrows off a stone wall. I get the distinct impression that the Pharisees didn’t take any of this to heart. Two notable exceptions are Nicodemus, who eventually came around (John 3:1-21), and Paul the Apostle (Acts 9:1-18).
Our own hedges
Back to our own hedges. I think we can easily step into the trap of not distinguishing between what the Bible says (exegesis) and what we want the Bible to say (eisogesis). This has everything to do with how well we understand the Bible and how well we apply it correctly, responsibly and faithfully in our lives (hermeneutics).
I said earlier that the Bible has something to say about tattoos. I want to briefly touch on it here. I don’t want to either denounce or promote tattoos, but I want to highlight that we have to become better at basing our decisions on principles from Scripture.
Warnings against marking of the skin
Those who’ve gone through the trouble of consulting the Scriptures on the topic of tattoos probably would have read in the book of Leviticus that “you shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves…”. Here is that sentence in the context of its paragraph:
You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. – Leviticus 19:26-29
What is the context here? Whatever it is, let’s ignore it for a few moments.
I sure hope you are not one of those ghastly men who trim their beards! Barbers, beware. You’re obviously accomplices in a dreadful sin and are in serious trouble. School-going boys, by obeying the school rules you are breaking some Israelite laws here – I hope you’re prepared to be punished. I don’t think many of us are guilty of interpreting omens. Or perhaps you have a wild-haired aunt in the family who are into reading tea leaves? And is eating rare steaks a sin? If so, I am in trouble myself. Boy, my Saturday night braais will have to look different from hence forth.
Can you see what the Scripture looks like without reference to the original context? Can you see what it does to the arguments of a non-Christian society when we skip the work of finding out what things really meant, so that we can know what they really mean today?
Without context, can you see how Jesus can seem guilty of a “great and immoral sin” by not forcing his disciples to wash their hands before dinner?
The Leviticus passage clearly points to a context of pagan religious practices. It is a warning to the Israelites against conformance to the nations around them. It also addresses an unbiblical notion of “mourning for the dead” – something akin to today’s ancestor worship perhaps. We have to do a bit more research before we jump from the passage above in Leviticus, written to Israelites around 4000 years ago in an idol-worshipping middle-eastern context, to some random demon “watching you through the ink” while standing next to a hockey field..
On the other hand, if you are a child of God there is something to be said about being prudent about how you treat the temple of your body and what you do with it.
Bottom line, we need to know our Bibles better.
By the way, what should we think of God’s message to the Israelites in Isiah 49:16 which reads:
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…
Sounds relevant to our topic here, I think. How close is engraving to tattooing?
Are there any beliefs, cultural elements, superstitions even, that we are putting on the same level as the teachings in Scripture? Or, as the Bible calls it,
teaching as doctrines of God the commandments of men – Mark 7:7
If we do, what might the potential consequences be? Exasperating our children perhaps (Ephesians 6:4)? Manipulating and disrespecting our spouses instead of loving and respecting them in a Biblical way (Ephesians 6:22-26)? Being substandard witnesses to a non-believing, watching world around us?
Many ideas, philosophies and pop culture trends compete for the prime position of Path Illuminator in our lives. Let’s put some fresh effort into allowing the Scriptures to enjoy that position (Psalm 119:105). Let’s not make the same mistakes as the Pharisees, who served God with their lips but not their hearts. And let’s ultimately follow Jesus’ example of prioritising the Spirit of the Law over the Letter of the Law.