The Script Out Verses of the Bible: "You shall not tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord."
Hespeler, 6 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Leviticus 19:19, 26-28, 2 Timothy 3:10-17, Psalm 119:1-16
’m here today to introduce to you my brand new product – the most important Bible Study tool that you will ever own. You see, a lot of people will sell you tools to enhance your study of the Word of God. They will sell you pens and highlighters that you can use when you find a verse that you really like. They can sell you tabs and bookmarks that you can put into your Bibles so that you can quickly find all of your very favourite passages. And they will sell you very fine pens that you can use to make exhaustive notes in the margins beside the passages that you really love detailing how you want to apply them in your life.
I’m not talking about that kind of Bible study tool. Anybody can sell you a tool that you can use to mark or annotate or find your favourite passages. But, let me ask you, when was the last time someone offered you the kind of tool that you really need – something to help you with the passages you don’t like, the ones that you maybe even hate. And don’t try and tell me that you love the whole Bible and you couldn’t possibly dislike anything that it says because it doesn’t matter how much you love and respect the Bible. You could be the most conservative, Bible thumping fundamentalist or the most liberal, critical thinker or anyone in between. You have some passages that you just wish weren’t there. They may be different passages based on what your position is, but you’ve got them.
And the really big question, if you are someone who is committed to the Scriptures (as I am) is what are you going to do with those passages. And I will even go so far as to say that what you do with the passages that you hate is far more important than what you do with the ones that you love. It tells me a whole lot more about what kind of Christian you are.
And do you know what most of us do with those passages? We just ignore them. We don’t read them. We certainly don’t read them in public and, should we come across them by accident in our private reading, it’s like we can’t even see them. If we read them by mistake, we forget them as quickly as possible. That’s why I created my new product. I thought, if that’s how we’re going to treat the passages of the Bible that we don’t like, why not just go all the way. Why not just take out your bottle of Script Out® (patent pending) and, with just a few strokes of your brush, that offending verse will never bother you again.
And, even better, today I am very proud to introduce the newest addition to the Script Out® family: our new and very handy paragraph size!
Let me give you an example of how very necessary this product is. A little over a year ago, a picture surfaced on the internet. It was a picture that a man had taken and posted of this text that he had had tattooed onto his arm. The picture got a lot of attention and engendered a lot of discussion because it read as follows: “[Thou] shall not lie with a male as one does with a woman. It is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22” It was simply a verbatim quote from the King James translation of the Bible but the text was very controversial because it was one of those texts that a lot of people really don’t like and wish it wasn’t there but that some other people really like and will even quote it, sometimes, as if it were the only Bible verse that matters.
Now, I think that that text that the man had tattooed on him counts as what I would call one of these “Script Out®” texts because it makes a lot of people rather uncomfortable and so we like to pretend that it doesn’t exist. And to do a complete look at the uses of this new Bible Study tool, we’ll have to take a look at that text sooner or later, but I am not really going to talk about it today but rather about another step that the story took.
If you spend much time on the internet, you will know that people can go on and on talking about pretty much anything for a very long time. Well there was a lot of discussion about this man’s tattoo and I read a great deal of it in various forums because I sort of like that stuff. And a lot of the discussion wasn’t about the actual verse that the man had put on his arm but actually about another verse from the same book of the Bible that appears only one chapter later. In Leviticus 19:28 it says, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” People brought up that verse as a way of saying how stupid they thought that tattoo guy was. Here he was condemning people for breaking one law in the Book of Leviticus by actually breaking another law from the very next chapter of the same book!
And that verse, the tattooing verse, is, I think, a great place to start talking about Script Out® verses in general. It is not an overly controversial passage for most people. I don’t know about you, but I can’t say I have any really strong feelings about tattoos. I’ve never really been interested in getting a tattoo of my own, but I certainly have many friends who have them and I have nothing at all against them. I kind of like some that I have seen.
So I’ve really got to say that I don’t find anything morally wrong about tattoos unless, of course, they depict something offensive. If people want to have them it is up to them and I’m not going to judge them and hope that they will be happy with what they’ve put on their body because they are kind of stuck with it for the long term.
So, in short, I don’t feel that tattooing, in general, is a moral issue worthy of being condemned by the Bible. At most, it is an issue of personal judgement and decision. I don’t want to deal with it on a Biblical level and so, why not make this the first verse we try out our Bible Study tool on. (Remove the offending verse using Script Out®). There, that’s better.
And yet, it is in the Bible. And, as Christians, we actually are committed to the Bible – the whole book whether we like it or not. Yes, maybe everyone does pick and choose the verses that they love and the ones that they ignore, but that doesn’t mean that that is what we really should do.
When I was reading the comment threads about that guy who had tattooed the passage from Leviticus on his arm, there actually were some people who were basically thought that the guy’s tattoo was not contrary to the Old Testament law and were defending it. So why not take a look at some of their arguments and discover if there is any merit to them. It might be a good exercise that would help us to deal better with Script Out® passages in general and I think we may need some help dealing with these passages.
One thing that people were saying was that you needed to take in the full historical context of the verse and that, if you did, you would see that the verse really didn’t apply to the kinds of tattoos that people get today. In particular, they noted that the particular tattoos that the verse has in mind are the tattoos and other marks or piercings that people made in that culture as a part of mourning for and perhaps even worshipping honoured loved ones who had died.
It was apparently a common custom among some people who lived in the ancient Near East for people to do such things. It was a cultural practice like sending flowers or giving eulogies is for us. So, the argument is, the commandment really only applies narrowly to that specific cultural practice and not to tattoos in general. And it does seem true that that is the specific practice that is in mind in the verse. Presumably, since such cultural practices don’t really exist today, there is no real application to life in the modern world. People today who go out and get tattoos are, therefore, in the clear because they don’t do it for those narrow reasons.
But that leads to another question: why is the Bible so worried about cultural practices anyways? There are in fact, many Biblical commandments that speak specifically to such things – outlawing certain hairstyles and certain foods, restricting certain fashions and styles of clothing, for example. These are not moral issues but clearly cultural issues and yet the Bible spends a whole lot of energy regulating them. Why?
Well, the idea seems to have been that the people of Israel were supposed to be special and unique because they were the chosen people of a God who was special and unique. For that reason they were supposed to be different from the other people who lived around them – different in terms of everything about them including their customs and culture. And so that is why the Bible is so into regulating things like fashions and hairstyles and tattoos.
But what are we supposed to do with that? Are any of those laws of use to us? The answer, generally speaking, seems to be no. Yes, we are called as Christians to be different from the other people around us. But Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in setting his followers apart culturally from the people around them – in fact, he often specifically told his disciples that they didn’t need to worry about things like food laws if they served to create a division between them and the people that they were ministering to. Jesus had a different idea of what it meant that his people were holy and special.
So the bottom line is that the placing of tattoos on the body is not something that needs to concern us. We need not make a fuss over it one way or the other because it was something that was maybe important at a particular time in history when the people of Israel needed to set themselves apart from the people who surrounded them, but that need is no longer there in the same way.
So, as I say, in the internet forums I was reading people who were saying that we should not be so quick to condemn that young man with the tattoo. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing. But the interesting thing was that there were at least some people who were defending him who also thought that he was right to proclaim the particular scripture that he was. In other words they were saying that the prohibition against tattoos no longer mattered but the prohibition against homosexuality did.
My big issue with that is that they were willing to apply critical thinking to the one verse but not to the other one. Surely some of the same considerations that applied to the one verse also applied to the other. There are lots of reasons to think that the other verse also had some specific cultural activities (like temple prostitution or fertility rituals) in mind. But no one seemed to be willing to ask what the relevance of that is today if such rituals and cultural practices no longer exist.
There is also the fact that we find this law in the midst of a whole set of rules and regulations that are mostly cultural in nature and that have the clear goal of setting the people of Israel apart from their neighbours around them. And yet, no one seemed to be willing to ask whether this law can be safely ignored because of Jesus rejection, in general, of laws that regulated cultural practices.
And here we come to the first lesson that we can take away from these Script Outâ passages in the Bible. We will come across Bible verses that we don’t like but that we don’t really need to worry about because they no longer apply to our situation. And that is great. It is often a relief. But there is a catch. We have to be consistent. If we don’t worry about one verse that we don’t like for a good reason, but then find another verse that we maybe do like that has a lot in common from the verse we rejected, be can’t just choose to dump one and keep the other. We have to think it all through critically.
The easy thing is to use your Script Outâ. People have actually been doing it for centuries even before this new product came on the market. They just pretended that the verse wasn’t there. But that is not good enough. If we are going to claim to take this Book seriously, a Script Out approach is just not going to cut it. So we are going to continue to struggle with those very passages that we’d really just rather they weren’t there at all.