Bad Hermeneutics in a Tattoo

In Bruxy Cavey’s article The Good News in a Tattoo, Cavey explains his decision to get the Bible reference “Leviticus 19:28” tattooed down his forearm. His explanation basically amounts to a dismissal of the Old Testament law on the grounds that Jesus makes it obsolete. In his estimation, this tattoo is an announcement of and testimony to the good news of Jesus forever printed in his very own flesh. It’s a conversation starter in evangelistic endeavours.

In this article I’m not interested in nit-picking Cavey’s decision to get a tattoo. In fact, I honestly couldn’t care less about that. Instead, I am going to demonstrate the mishandling of Scripture that led Cavey to get the tattoo, and that gives the tattoo meaning to him. I am going to explain why Cavey’s tattoo is actually a permanent monument to bad hermeneutics and a poor, even careless understanding of Scripture.

What’s the text say?

Bruxy Cavey paraphrases Leviticus 19:28 in this video as saying “Whatever you do, don’t get a tattoo.” (1:50). Likewise in this video he says “Leviticus 19:28 says “God’s people must never get tattoos. Never” (24:15). Then here he says “That’s the verse in the Old Testament that says God’s people must not get a tattoo” (0:55) and “Leviticus 19:28 says you must not get a tattoo” (1:30). That’s about the closest to exegesis I’ve ever heard from Cavey on that particular verse, even though I have heard him speak on it in several different contexts.

So, what does Leviticus 19:28 say?

You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:28, ESV

See! It says right there “You shall not… tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.”

Well, there’s a little more to it than that…

The surrounding context is a series of regulations given by God to the nation of Israel forbidding certain behaviours and rituals that were common among the neighbouring pagan nations. The immediate section surrounding verse 28 are prohibitions against eating flesh with blood in it, interpreting omens, necromancy, seeking mediums, making your daughter a prostitute, etc.

When we look at verse 28, we see that what is said about tattooing is not isolated. The same verse forbids cutting yourselves. Additionally, the behaviour is specifically forbidden when it is done “for the dead”. There is no reason in the text to believe that cutting yourself and tattooing are unrelated. In fact, the immediate context tells us that what is forbidden is both cutting or tattooing yourself “for the dead”.

What is “Tattooing”?

The Hebrew word commonly translated “tattoo” is what is referred to as a “hapax legomenon”, a word which is only used a single time in the entire record of the Hebrew Old Testament. This fact alone makes it difficult to translate accurately. What is obvious is that it has reference to some sort of marking of oneself.

Additionally, to equate the term with modern day permanent injection of ink into the skin is more than just a short leap. In fact, Deuteronomy 14:1, a parallel passage to Leviticus 19:28 makes reference not to anything like what we know as tattooing, but to shaving the forehead.

You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead.

Deuteronomy 14:1, ESV

Apparently the focus then was not so much on the act of tattooing oneself, but the act of marking oneself in any way with the specific stated motivation of it being “for the dead”.

Dr James White argues this way:

“For example, the single prohibition against a tattoo (Lev. 19:28—though we are actually not certain whether קַֽעֲקַ֔ע means tattoo in the modern sense of permanent, injected pigment) is actually found in a passage about doing things “for the dead.” The Deuteronomistic parallel (14:1) further shows that it is not the actual tattoo that is in view, as the parallel refers to “shaving the forehead” as the parallel to קַֽעֲקַ֔ע. The point is that the pagan religions around Israel contained beliefs relating to the dead—either provisions for honoring the dead, or, fear of the curses of the dead. As the people of God, the Israelites were to realize that the dead had no power over them, hence, they were not to alter their appearances to either honor the dead, or (as I think more likely), to hide from their curses. And that principle would continue to this day: as God’s people, we are not to concern ourselves about the activities of the dead: God is in control of our lives, not the dead.”

This is taken from a Facebook post as quoted here

Is Leviticus 19:28 Obsolete?

In Cavey’s blog I referenced at the beginning of this article, Cavey makes no attempt to exegete the text of Leviticus 19:28 by looking at context (either textual, historical, or otherwise), or original languages. Instead he simply assumes it means nobody can ever get any kind of tattoo for any reason and then declares it “obsolete” based on a rather questionable application of Hebrews 8:13 (also not exegeted).

But now that we have actually understood the text in light of it’s context and original language, Cavey’s assertion that this command is “obsolete” seems rather odd. Is he saying then, that Hebrews 8:13, properly applied means that now it is permissible for the people of God to mark themselves in order to worship the dead? Out of fear of the dead? Because they are in some way concerned about the activity of the dead? Are the surrounding commandments against interpreting omens, necromancy, seeking mediums, or making your daughter a prostitute obsolete as well? Would Cavey say that activity is permissible, too? I doubt he would, but that would only serve to demonstrate how badly he has misunderstood not only Leviticus 19:28, but Hebrews 8:13 as well!

Conclusion

Leviticus 19:28 does not necessarily apply to modern day body-art as the word translated “tattoo” is not a direct parallel to modern day ink-injection tattoos. Additionally, the text of Scripture only forbids such behaviour when it is done “for the dead”.

Of course, no Christians today would argue that such practice is permissible today. We are not to worship, fear, or be at all concerned with the activity of “the dead”. The only way that Cavey’s tattoo could possibly be a violation of Leviticus 19:28 is if he got that tattoo to worship the dead, out of fear of the dead, etc.

The bottom line – Bruxy Cavey’s tattoo is not a violation of the Old Testament law today, nor would it have been if he lived among the Israelites in the days of Moses.

Instead, Cavey’s tattoo is a sad, permanent monument to bad exegesis.

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