I got into this topic over the issue of poking through one's skin foreign objects (like ink), in connection with Lev.19:28. One responder pointed out verse 27, right next to it:
Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard."Hyper-" Orthodox Jews interpret this to mean that they should let thier sideburns grow uncut -- you can recognize them by the curls they apply to these locks of hair to limit the nuisance and unsightly aspects of it. Considering that Jesus did not encourage hyper-orthodox interpretations of other Mosaic Laws, I suspect that this was not God's intent.
My critic was more into pointing an accusing finger, the implication that I was cherry-picking the Law by encouraging obedience to verse 28 (no tattoos) while violating verse 27. I wonder if he himself was not also cherry-picking: verse 29 encourages us not to pimp our daughters; verse 18 in the same chapter was explicitly affirmed by Jesus Christ -- several times.
But I got to wondering. I don't just cut off the edges of my beard, I cut the whole thing off. Is his criticism valid?
What about shaving it off? The Law of Moses calls for shaving [Lev.14:8, Num.6:9] on occsasion, and Joseph shaved before going in to see Pharaoh [Gen.41:14]. Shaving must somehow be different from partial cutting.
It comes down to this, I think: Why? What is the purpose for doing something to my hair or skin? While there is nothing in the New Testament about tattoos, there is New Testament teaching on the topic of hair decorations:
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. -- 1Peter 3:3The point of this is not against braiding the long hair (elsewhere encouraged in Godly women) to keep it under control and out of the way of their chores, but rather against decorative braids like cornrows. Cornrows and heavy gold chains and fine clothing are all symbols of conspicuous consumption, showing off our wealth or leisure time (cornrow braids take a very long time to prepare), just as much as driving a Ferrari or living in a multi-million-dollar mansion, or sporting a deep tan. A tan used to be a sign of lower-class status, a farm laborer who spent long hours outside in the fields; now that the lower classes work indoors in factories and offices, only the rich can afford the leisure time to go sit half-naked in the sun (or the money to buy it from a salon).
Taking these different instructions to be the same essential teaching, I therefore conclude that Lev.19:27 is not an absolute prohibition on cutting facial hair, but intended to restrict doing it for decorative purposes. Tattoos are essentially decorations. Their purpose is to be admired, to declare to friend and foe alike who the owner is. Fancy hairdos (including cornrows and haircuts and beard trimmings) have the same purpose, although generally with less specificity.
With the exception of a few notorious actors, shaving is not decorative, it removes opportunity for making the hair into a decoration. Joseph shaved so as not to give unnecessary offense to the Egyptian king (giving honor to whom honor is due), because the men in Egypt all shaved. In America today, most men shave. It's really hard to make an uncut beard look other than grubby, and mine is more scraggly than most. So shaving minimizes unnecessary cultural offense. I find that wearing a tie has a similar positive effect. It's a fake -- I'm not into wasting a lot of time tying the bugger every day -- but it only offends the counter-culture, and not even most of them.
Tattoos are mostly the other way around. Nobody is offended by the lack of a tattoo, but many people have a problem with them. Piercing in odd places are even worse. I think they confer bragging rights. One of the guys my age at church when I was in college got a tattoo in his groin -- I suspect so he could show it off only to his peers in the shower, but hide it from the other church members. I could never figure out the point, but I was never much into self-decoration.
Some tattoos are for the purpose of identification, like the simple number tattoo on the arm of each Jew in the German concentration camps. When the Vietnam war was hot, one draftee reportedly got out of military service by a 3-word tattoo "F*** THE ARMY" on the edge of his right hand, where it would be seen every time he saluted. It identified his military politics where it mattered most. A simple "JESUS IS LORD" or an undecorated cross might do that. Is that what your tattoo is really about? Or is it decorative?
Some hair cuttings are practical. The Apostle Paul writes:
Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? -- 1Co.11:14Long hair is beautiful, but it takes a lot of time to manage it, and it gets in the way of most kinds of work. People in the workforce (including now women) tend to cut it short. The army gives their recruits a "buzz" (very short) for practical reasons. Short hair is not decorative, it is practical. This is "the very nature of things" Paul referred to.