If you suggest to someone that getting a tattoo is bad because the bible says so (Lev. 19:28), her response might be: "Well, if you believe that, then you shouldn't wear clothes made of two kinds of fabric." This person also knows some Old Testament Law. And while we know that the Old Testament Law does not apply to us in the same way, we tend to pull verses out like that. We still uphold the Ten Commandments, which is law, but what about the others?
Interpreting law is not an easy task. And it's not something one can teach or fully explain in one blog post. Interpreting all of Scripture is hard work, and it deserves a deep treatment, which is why hermeneutics textbooks are so big. I would like to share some things which have helped me. Last week, at school, I had an assignment interpreting laws from Leviticus 19:19-37. I had to choose five of the laws, explain their significance for the original audience, and then bring them into contemporary situations. The law about blending fabrics and the law about tattooing were among them. I chose to comment on both of those laws.
The Mosaic Law is given in the context of a covenant, and that is important. Every law, even the laws which can be regarded as civil, are all given in the context of a covenant, and that means it must be looked at in the context of relationships; relationships between God and his people, and between the people themselves. The Law is not a code like our own laws. Understanding that has helped me look at how these laws provide a structure for relationships rather than just being a selection of unusual commands.
The Law contains more than one kind of law. There are those which are direct commands (You shall not steal) and there are those which are what is known as casuistic, the "if ... then" kind of laws (Eg. Ex. 21:12-13). Understanding the original intention of the law is important, because how it was understood then is a guide for how we incorporate it into our lives today.
We know that the Law has been fulfilled in Christ, but fulfilled does not mean that it is something we reject entirely. The Law is part of God's Word, and all of God's Word is useful for us (II Timothy 3:16-17), so we cannot simply dismiss it. What is needed is careful thought and good hermeneutical principles. As we studied these principles last week, I found two in particular very helpful.
The first comes from my textbook: "All of the OT applies to Christians, but none of it applies apart from its fulfillment in Christ." The second comes from my professor. While the form of the law is no longer valid, the function still is. When we interpret law, we isolate the form, ask ourselves it if is valid, and then seek to find the function of the law; what is the principle behind the law?
So how do I handle Leviticus 19:28? This deals with cutting the body and getting tattoos. Many people see the contemporary practice of piercing as parallel to the idea of cutting. The phrase "for the dead" implies that the practices were part of a religious practice. Forsaking Canaanite religious practices was part of living as a separated people. Furthermore, the Israelite were created in the image of God and were not to disfigure their bodies which was part of these pagan practices.
We can bring this forward to our situation by remembering that we, too, created in God's image, should not partake of pagan religious practices. We are called to live as God's separated people. Now, some people may counter with the remark that getting a tattoo is following pagan practices and disfiguring our bodies, but who defines what "disfigurement" means? Some would suggest that ear piercing is disfigurement. What about plastic surgery? It gets as little more complicated. As one of my fellow students reminded, our motive is important. Personally, I don't think someone who gets a tattoo because she thinks it looks beautiful is participating in a pagan religious rite. The person may or may not regret it some day, but it's not disobeying God's commandments.
Reading the Law can be intimidating and seem meaningless to us. However, it ultimately points to God's holiness. Not only does it highlight our need for Christ, its foundation is God's holiness. That means it is most definitely something we should read.
If you are interested in learning more about biblical interpretation, I would recommend Grasping God's Word. I have had a chance to look through it, and it's very helpful for students new to hermeneutics. It's directed to students, and it speaks as if the reader is a student. It may seem as if the authors are talking down to you, but try to imagine you are a first year Bible school student, and it seems more natural.