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BIBLE ILLUSTRATOR: Cuttings in your flesh for the dead

FROM THE BIBLE ILLUSTRATOR

Leviticus 19:28
Lev 19:28

Cuttings in your flesh for the dead.

The wild and frantic demonstrations of grief so common among eastern dud southern nations, included cuts and incisions in the body, among the Hebrews, the Philistines, and the Moabites, the Arabs and Ethiopians, the Babylonians and Armenians; among the early Greeks and Romaus, people in bereavement, especially women, indulged in the hideous practice of “lacerating their cheeks”; and when the king of the Seythians died, those of his subjects who received his body for burial, “cut off a part of their ears, shaved off their hair, wounded themselves on the arms, and drove arrows through their left hands.” Such acts, which are still customary among some tribes of Persia, Arabia, and Abyssinia, were to be shunned by the Hebrews, not only because immoderate grief is unbecoming a nation of priests, but because cuts and incisions, usually made by persons while engaged in prayer or other religious exercises, were meant as substitutes for self-immolation, and the blood thus shed was supposed to ensure atonement: such notions were held in abhorrence by the advanced Levitical writers, who attributed the power of expiation to the blood of clean sacrificial animals, but not to human blood.

More widespread still was the custom of “inscribing” upon the body, by means of a “caustic,” words or short maxims, or of marking the forehead and cheeks, the hands, the arms, and the neck, with figures and emblems. It prevailed, and partially still prevails, in many countries of the old and the new world, both among savage and more civilised nations; and though in many cases it is in itself harmless, beingmerely intended for ornament, or for identification, as when a slave bears the name or the initials of his master, or the soldier those of his general, it was, in many instances, a very efficient mode of strengthening the most dangerous superstitions. It was so common for idolaters to have the name or image of their chief deities, or some other significant symbol associated with their faith, engraved upon their bodies, that even the earlier religious legislators of the Hebrews deemed it necessary to devise some substitute for that custom in harmony with their new creed, and they introduced the “phylacteries,” which the Hebrews were to “bind” as “a sign” upon their head, and as “a memorial” between their eyes, “that the law of the Lord might be in their mouths.”

Thus more than one advantage was gained; the sign or memorial was known to refer to none else but the One and true God of the Hebrews, and it was understood not as an amulet, which in itself is a shield against danger and misfortune, but as an emblem meant to remind the Israelite of his duties, and of their faithful accomplishment by his own zeal and vigilant exertion. Yet it was even after the exile considered unobjectionable to cover with such symbols the body itself, as is manifest from allusions of Isaiah (Isa 44:5; Isa 49:16 (refs2)).

The Levitical writers prohibited, therefore, tattooing of any kind and for whatever purpose, well aware how imperceptibly that practice might lead again to the heathen rites and notions. Christians in some parts of the East, and European sailors, were long in the habit of marking, by means of punctures and a black dye, their arms and other members of the body with the sign of the crucifix, or the image of the Virgin; the Mohammedans mark them with the name of Allah, and Orientals generally with the outlines of celebrated towns and places. A traveller relates that, as a preparation for an Arabian wedding, the women tattoo the bride with figures of flowers, houses, cypresses, antelopes, and other animals. Among the Thraeians tattooing was considered as a mark and privilege of noble birth. The branding of prisoners and malefactors, extensively practised to this day, is included in the interdiction of our verse. (M. M. Kalisch, Ph. D.)

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