Did The Israelites Have Tattoos?

A blonde woman wearing a black tank top with tattoos on her arm

Table of Contents

Tattoos and tattooing as a topic and practice began about five thousand years ago. So did the ancient Israelites have tattoos? There is a chance they did.

Being an entirely different people from a past age, the use of tattoos by the Israelites has caused curiosity among people.

We have prepared a well-researched article to address some topics that will satisfy your curiosity about the Israelites and tattoos.

Grayscale Photo of Tattoo Neon Signage

Is Getting a Tattoo a Sin in the Bible?

In Leviticus 19:28, the NIV Bible states, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”

The statement forbids anyone from getting a tattoo. However, the background of this verse continues to cause controversy among people. Some view tattoos as prohibited, while others see no problem with them.

But before we go further, it is best to distinguish between tattooing as we know it today and how it was back then. So, 

What Do We Know About How Israelites Viewed Tattoos?

In the Bible, any marking on the body by a needle, knife, or sharp object qualifies as tattooing or branding. Most tattooing today involves only needles and ink.

In the same Book of Leviticus, idol worship and pagan mourning practices are prohibited, including body markings that qualify as tattoos. The mourning practice involved the Israelites slashing their bodies to mourn their deceased and honor their gods.

In this case, some have concluded that tattooing among Israelites was a pagan mourning practice because of the proximity of its prohibition in the Bible to the prohibition of tattoos. However, there is no proof that tattooing was an entirely pagan mourning practice.

Are There Positive Remarks or Uses of Tattoos In the Bible?

In the Book of Ezekiel 9:4, the prophet Ezekiel anticipates the destruction of Jerusalem city. The prophet envisions six divinely chosen executioners tasked with killing the guilty Judeans in the town.

Of the six, one is responsible for marking the forehead of all the righteous people who would be spared from execution. The marking would be a sign X.

In this case, tattooing distinguishes God’s people from those who face punishment, just like the blood sign on the doorposts of the Israelites during the last plague.

Genesis 4:15 talks about the Lord putting a mark on Cain so that whoever finds him will not kill him. This tattoo or branding would save Cain from anyone wanting to kill him.

Isaiah 44:5 stresses God’s allegiance to the covenant with Israel in return for loyalty to Him after Jerusalem’s destruction and the exile of Babylon. Prophet Isaiah says that the faithful can show their loyalty to God by writing “YHWH” on their hand, which means “belonging to Yahweh.”

Is It Sinful To Get a Tattoo?

The truth is tattooing, and Judaism does not enjoy a warm relationship as is with many other religions. The Book of Leviticus 19:28 reminds Jews that God prohibits tattoos.

Some Jews will agree it is wrong, while others may interpret it in a different light. They argue that the answer ultimately boils down to personal conviction, which should not be imposed on others with different beliefs.

Tattoo artist while working on an arm tattoo

Tattoos as a Symbol of Ownership

Tattoos were used to mark/brand enslaved people. The enslaver’s name was typically marked on the enslaved person’s forehead. If any enslaved person was to escape and then be found, they could quickly be returned by whoever found them to their master.

Some scholars argue that tattoos, a symbol of ownership, were prohibited because they reminded the Israelites of their captivity in Egypt. With their long-awaited freedom, permanent markings on the body indicating servitude to masters was a thing of the past.

Blanket Prohibition In Judaism

Rabbis around the world have produced different theories about the prohibition of tattoos.

Mishnah Makkot 3:6 states, “If a man wrote on his skin, he is not culpable unless he writes it and pricks it in with ink, eye-paint or anything else that leaves a lasting mark.”

This writing describes tattooing as a composition of two separate and distinct components, which include cutting the skin; and writing. Doing both is what constitutes transgression of the Torah.

Some rabbis taught that tattoos were acceptable only if they did not include God’s name or the names of any pagan deities.

Final Word

With the rising interest in tattooing among people, especially the youth, many want to know what the Bible says about it and whether the Israelites had tattoos.

During those days, tattoos served different purposes than they do today. Only one passage in the Bible prohibits tattooing – Leviticus 19:28. Ancient Jewish teachers provided different theories to explain the passage’s true meaning.

Israelites did have a form of tattooing, just that it was for different use. Whether you want to get a tattoo or seek knowledge, we hope this article helps you.



More Of The Same Category​

Michael Blau

Michael Blau

I have been tattooing for over 15 years and have my studio in Brooklyn. While I'll tattoo just about anything on anyone, my specialty is religious tattoos.
I am originally from Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn known for its large Jewish population. This has given me a lot of experience and understanding when it comes to tattoos and religion.

About Me

Recent Posts

40 Small Religious Tattoos For Men