READ: Leviticus 19:26-31
Laws of Separation
The laws of verses 27 & 28 are rather interesting: don’t shave around the sides of your head, don’t disfigure the edges of your beard, don’t make cuttings in your flesh, don’t get tattoos (which could simply refer to just painting the body)! Why are these given as laws and how should they relate to society today?
One must understand that, not only would these practices seem to be taking away from the ‘whole’ – e.g. disfigured beard, disfigured body, disfigured hair – but these practices were often associated with pagan rituals and religions.
For example, when Elijah had the showdown with Baal’s prophets on Mt. Carmel, they were ‘cut[ing] themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lanches, until the blood gushed out on them.’ (I Kings 18:28) Another ancient text talks of ‘El the Kind’ mourning for the Canaanite God Baal: ‘…cuts his skin with a razor; he cuts his cheeks and chin, he raked his arms with a reed, he plowed his chest like a garden, he raked his back like a valley.’ (Coonan, Stories from Ancient Canaan)
It is said that there was an ancient practice of painting one’s body as preparation to attend a ritual; also such bodily markings could serve as a sign of belonging to certain religions and cults (Harley, WBC: Leviticus).
So, it would seem that there are two principles that motivate these laws. 1) they symbolised incompleteness, 2) they adhered to local pagan practices. Holiness, of course, is about being complete and about being separate from everything that is wrong or contrary to God.
One of the few New Testament desires for Christians under the New Covenant was that they would not partake of anything sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29) – that they would be seperate from such pagan rituals and worship.
The challenge for us today is to ask what sort of practices should we re-think and not be associated with because they are so akin to the pagan practices of our own culture and society?