NEITHER MAKE ANY CUTTINGS IN YOUR FLESH FOR THE DEAD NOR PRINT ANY MARKS ON YOU?
by Shawn Brasseaux
What exactly is the LORD God trying to communicate to Israel here? Leviticus 19:28 commands: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” Since we live in a time and culture far removed from Moses’ day, these are indistinct instructions. God seems “nitpicky” here, but if we study the context, we will see His reasons.
Leviticus 18:24-30 sits in the chapter just prior to the passage under consideration: “ Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you:  And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.  Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you:  (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled; )  That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you.  For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.  Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the LORD your God.”
Leviticus 20:22-26 sits in the chapter just after the passage under consideration: “ Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, spue you not out.  And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.  But I have said unto you, Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey: I am the LORD your God, which have separated you from other people.  Ye shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean: and ye shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by fowl, or by any manner of living thing that creepeth on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean.  And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine.”
According to Leviticus 18:3-4, chapters 18 through 20 are the sins of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Israel was surely introduced to at least some of these practices while in Egypt. They were customs in the land of Canaan. God did not want Israel, His special people, to continue the wicked deeds they had learned during the time of their Egyptian captivity. Furthermore, He did not want Israel to repeat the sins of the Canaanites. After all, God was replacing the inhabitants of Canaan with the Israelites. God did not want His land to be defiled any longer, and it did not make sense for Israel to keep committing those sins. If Israel repeated those iniquitous acts, the land would vomit them out as well. Cutting the flesh to mourn for the dead and printing marks on the skin—tattooing—were evidently pagan acts of worship. The Gentiles committed them in Egypt and Canaan, but the Israelites were forbidden to engage in them. It was nothing but Satan worship!
After Leviticus, with the re-issuing of the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy, we read God’s commands to Israel in Deuteronomy 14:1: “Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Notice the connection to funerals. God did not want Israel to repeat heathen burial practices.
Making gashes in the flesh, cutting the flesh, was a sign of mourning. We can see this in the Book of Jeremiah: “[16:6] Both the great and the small shall die in this land: they shall not be buried, neither shall men lament for them, nor cut themselves, nor make themselves bald for them:…. [41:5] That there came certain from Shechem, from Shiloh, and from Samaria, even fourscore men, having their beards shaven, and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves, with offerings and incense in their hand, to bring them to the house of the LORD…. [48:37] For every head shall be bald, and every beard clipped: upon all the hands shall be cuttings, and upon the loins sackcloth.”
Outside of mourning, cutting of the flesh was also done as a form of penance, to try to appease the gods by suffering and giving a blood offering. The prophets of Baal, a pagan god, did just this in 1 Kings 18:28 to try to gain his attention: “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.”
Tattooing was a custom to identify members of a pagan cult, as well as to ward off the spirits of the dead. It was nothing but vain superstition and false religion, which is why God commanded Israel to stay away from it.
“And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine.”