Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The OT Law Today

Many Christians aren't quite sure what to make of the Old Testament, having been taught that the laws of the OT are not applicable to them (based largely on Romans 6:14). Which parts apply and which parts don't?

I find it mildly humorous that some conservative (better: fundamentalist) criticisms of cultural practices find their supposed biblical basis in OT laws that would most certainly be abrogated by Rom 6:14.

Let's take, for example, the fundamentalist aversion to tattoos because, well, tattoos are just unbiblical. There might be plenty of perfectly rational reasons to NOT get a tattoo (will you like it in 30 years, what if you break up, etc.), but "because the Bible says it's wrong" isn't one of them.

The biblical injunction against tattoos is found in Leviticus 19 (one of my personal favorites for devotional reading).

Leviticus 19:28 (ESV):  You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

That seems straightforward enough. "You shall not tattoo yourselves." But wait, what's all this "cuts on your body for the dead" stuff about? I have a great idea . . . let's look at the context.

Leviticus 19:26-28 (ESV): "You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. [27] You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. [28] You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

Wow . . . reading verses 27-28 together is really paradoxical for fundamentalists. First, don't cut your hair or beard (i.e., look like a hippy - anathema to a fundamentalist who must be clean-shaven with short hair). Second, don't tattoo yourselves. Long hair is good; tattoos are bad. Mind bending, isn't it?

It's funny that some OT laws are invoked to explain cultural preferences, but most are ignored as no longer applicable. For example, when's the last time you checked your garments to avoid a cotton/polyester blend?

Leviticus 19:19 (ESV): "You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.

Work for a bank? Is it ethical to be charging interest, especially to members of your own religious community?

Deut. 23:19 (ESV): "You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest.

The fact that these laws are no longer relevant today (at least for most Christian communities) doesn't mean that they shouldn't be read. They can still teach us something about how to read our Bibles and about what issues were important to the biblical writers.

It's important for our passage on tattoos to notice what the biblical writer was really concerned with. It wasn't tattooing per se. Let's go back to the "cuts for the dead" issue. It seems like the writer of Lev 19:26-28 was concerned with magic and idol worship. I think it's safe to assume that eating flesh with the blood, interpreting omens, telling fortunes, cutting hair, cutting the body for the dead, and tattooing were all practices associated with necromancers, witches, mediums and wizards. In fact, I'd say that Lev 19:29-31 continues with a concern for practices associated with idol worship and magic (based on the explicit return of that topic in Lev 19:31).

Anyone with some experience reading ANE ritual texts care to back me up? Are those ritual or cultic practices described in Lev 19:26-31?

So if you're a tattooed Christian, it's ok. God forgives you.


  1. One of the main issues with tattoos, etc. in this context is that these are common mourning practices with which some biblical authors are uncomfortable. This is discussed in detail in Saul Olyan's recent book Biblical Mourning: Ritual and Social Dimensions (Oxford: 2004). I hope this helps!

  2. Why do You take it for granted that men should not wear beards? This was the norm in Orthodox countries, being first abolished (rather forcefully, I might add) by Peter the Great in 18th century Russia. Up until 100 yrs ago, it was mandatory for Orthodox Priests to wear beards. (Today only monks and bishops wear them).

    As regards the laws concerning separation (in clean and unclean animals; Jews and Gentiles; two kinds of seeds, threads, animals) it concerns the separation of Israel from the nations: but with the coming of the Messiah and the preaching of the Gospel even to the Gentiles, these laws no longer apply; but they do aplly when it comes to faith (you can't marry pagans, Jews & Muslims, heretics, or schismatics, [as St. Paul says, that marriage should be in the Lord]).

    This being said, the Catholics never wore beards, and the Ethiopians have religious tattoos, and they all once shared the same Christian faith, these differences notwithstanding.

  3. Lucian, the "clean-shaven" comment is directed at a particular type of American fundamentalist, as is most of this post. The point is that some Christian groups have oddly narrow perspectives on what to do about the Law. Thanks for your comment.

  4. All of these commandments are (obviously) still issues for Orthodox Jews. Interesting, while tattoos are forbidden according to almost all authorities, there is a minority view that the prohibition is only when done for mourning purposes but is permissible when done for beautification reasons.

    As for mixed fibers (shaatnez), the only prohibition is for wool & linen mixtures (those being the primary clothing materials in use as the time of the command. However, even silk is NOT included.) No rabbinic authority that I know of holds that it encompasses newer materials such as polyester.

    Since Orthodox Judaism believes in the authority of the oral law as promulgated by rabbinic (Pharasaic) tradition and exegesis, all of these Biblical commandments - including the limits of taking interest and hair/beard cutting - are the subject of endless discussions that go back at least two millenia!

  5. zach,

    I know about the practices of Orthodox Judaism. This post was directed at often contradictory approaches to OT law taken by Christians. That's why I titled it "OT Law Today." I try to avoid using the term "Old Testament" outside of the context of Christian interpretations.

    As far as polyester goes, the command simply states "two kinds of material." Technically any kind of cloth with a mixed weave should be forbidden. We often think of the rabbis' "fence around the Torah" as making things more strict. In fact, they're often trying to find loopholes.