Body Piercings and the Bible

Body piercings are not new to the world and have been a part of many cultures since time immemorial. However, the practice seems to be increasing in Christian circles, in line with the general trend to blur the differences between believers and unbelievers. Now like many other things, the Bible does not say ‘Thou shalt not pierce thy body’ but the fact that it does not give us an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts does not mean we can exercise our own will to the detriment of obedience to God. However, the Bible does mention body piercings, and it will be instructive to consider these references. 

   Let us begin with earrings.  Why? Because the Bible says most about them, and they are the most prevalent and accepted of body piercings in modern culture. Now the first reference to anything in the Word of God can be very instructive, and earrings enter Scripture in Genesis 35. It is worthwhile sparing a few lines on the background: Jacob has just left Syria, and his life so far has been one of cheating, double-crossing and dishonesty. At the beginning of the chapter, God speaks directly to him instructing him to go back to Bethel: “And God said to Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there, and make there an altar unto the God that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother” (v1). He needs to get back to the place where he was first called by God. So, what is Jacob’s reaction? “And Jacob said to his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and cleanse yourselves, and change your garments; and we will arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar to the God that answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way that I went” (vs. 2,3). Let us break this down into smaller parts:

   First, “And Jacob said to his household” (v2).  Jacob takes responsibility for his household. Headship is unfashionable today, but it is a principle that endures throughout Scripture, including the NT (see 1 Cor. 11: 3).

   Second, “and to all that were with him” (Gen. 35: 2). Jacob takes his position seriously enough to go as far as seeking to influence all associated with him.

   Third, “Put away the strange gods that are among you” (v2). Here we may be surprised to learn that those under Jacob’s influence carried strange gods including Rachel, his dearest wife.

   Fourth, “and cleanse yourselves, and change your garments” (v2). This is humbling task which acknowledges filth, and the need for a corresponding change of garments suitable for Bethel (the house of God). 

   Fifth, “and we will arise and go up to Bethel” (v3). Compare 1 Pet. 2: 5, where the people of God today are referred to as a “spiritual house”. Clearly, just being a Christian places certain moral demands upon the believer.

   Sixth, “and I will make there an altar to the God that answered me” (Gen. 35: 3). There comes a point where Jacob’s influence retracts to what is personal. He can use his influence (dependent upon others recognising his authority) for so much, but when it comes to links with God, then these must be personal.

   In summary, Jacob, and all his own, are going to reaffirm their allegiance to God, and everything that is unsuitable and a hindrance, is to be dealt with. Thus, “they gave to Jacob all the strange gods that were in their hand, and the rings that were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the terebinth that [is] by Shechem” (Gen. 35: 4). Very interesting! Jacob asked for their strange gods and they gave them, but also the “rings that were in their ears”. So, what can we deduce from this apparent link between the rings, and the strange gods? I would suggest that earrings signified identification with a master—in effect, allegiance was pledged by means of the earring. Indeed, individuals could be identified as belonging to a master by means of their earrings. In the case of Jacob’s family, it appears that the wearing of the earring (and the necessity of piercing of the body) identified the wearer with the false god which Jacob now instructed them to be rid of.

   Let us now turn elsewhere in Scripture to test this link between the wearing of an earring and identification with a master. Exodus 21: 5 states that “if the bondman shall say distinctly, I love my master, my wife, and my children, I will not go free”. This is followed by a transaction, or practice that is to be gone through which publicly attests the bondman’s allegiance, and identification with his master: “then his master shall bring him before the judges, and shall bring him to the door, or to the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall be his bondman for ever” (v6). Evidently, this piercing of the ear was more in relation to the master than it was to the wife and children, and the mark being in the ear suggests subjection to the master’s will and direction.

   There are other suggestive passages. In Judges 8: 22 Gideon is approached by those he had saved “from the hand of Midian” and they ask him to reign over them. Gideon refuses, saying “Jehovah will rule over you” (v23), but demands that they “give me every man the earrings of his booty”. The people, willing to relinquish the items which were requested, also added other items, including “moons” and “eardrops” (v26). The fact that these people so readily provided all these symbols of their oppression adds to the view that the earring was a recognised means of identification.

   Again, in Ezekiel 16 we read of the lamentation of Jehovah over Jerusalem, upon which He had lavished attention and advantage, only for His people to prove their utter treachery, unfaithfulness, and sin. Then in v12, God relates how He “put a ring on thy nose, and earrings in thine ears, and a beautiful crown upon thy head”. The crown is perhaps emblematic of divine choice and favour, and the nose ring we will consider in a moment, but what does this passage tell us about earrings? Jehovah loved Jerusalem and had put his mark upon it, and included in this mark were earrings—the symbols of identification with Him. Jerusalem, being thus marked (not with literal earrings of course) should have been faithful to its Master and recognised Him in all things.

   The Bible has less to say about nose rings than earrings, but the references are still of interest. On one level, the nose ring appears to be a decorative feature of the woman, and in modern, western culture a woman will usually take responsibility for her own ornamentation. In each of the Biblical references, however, the woman is either given a nose ring, or someone else takes it away. This is significant. We have already referred to Ezek. 16: 12 where Jehovah says to Israel “and I put a ring on thy nose, and earrings in thine ears, and a beautiful crown upon thy head”. Jehovah is here making a claim on Israel, and while the nose ring has some importance regarding identification, it also suggests He would seek to lead His people in a direction that was pleasing to himself. When we look at cattle today, a master marks identification with a tag in the ear, and in the case of a difficult beast, often uses a ring in the nose to lead it. This purpose of the ring in the ear as a means of identification of ownership, and the ring in the nose as a means of control over direction, do not appear so far removed in purpose from the use of such rings in Scriptural times. In Gen. 24: 47, Abraham’s servant said of Rebecca, “And I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her hands”. From a practical point of view, it seems highly likely that Rebecca already had a nose ring, and that this was replaced by another, for it was the servant’s desire to lead Rebecca to Isaac. Of course, at this point in the story Rebecca has not consented to the proposal, but it evident that the servant is, in any case, making a claim. Again, in Is. 3: 18-21 Jehovah says to Israel that He “will take away the ornament of anklets, and the little suns and crescents, the pearl-drops, and the bracelets … the finger-rings, and the nose-rings”. Here Jehovah disassociates himself from the nation of Israel because she has refused to be led by Him and He casts her off, leaving her to the ruin of her own ways.

   It may be an uncomfortable question, but when we join the widespread practice of piercing any part of our body, we need to ask: To whom or what are we displaying identification with? Of course, many a Christian will pierce their ears with no other thought than using the cavity for decoration. However, even if it is done in all innocence, does the practice survive honest scrutiny? Or, to put it another way—would it indicate identification with Christ? Does the practice of piercing a nose, or any other part of the body, glorify God? It is an observation, with regards to those who have not been brought up to consider the act as ‘normal Christian practice’, that piercing often accompanies a clear desire to put distance between them and their former Christian companions and their previous manner of life. In other words, they wish to publicly ‘identify’ with a different form of Christianity, or with those who are not Christian at all.  As it is a very visible act, body-piercing carries with it a clear message to any observer, reinforcing the subliminal ‘identification’ aspect of the whole matter.

   God places significant emphasis on how we look after our bodies: “Do ye not know that your body [is] the temple of the Holy Spirit which [is] in you, which ye have of God; and ye are not your own? for ye have been bought with a price: glorify now then God in your body” (1 Cor. 6: 19). Of course, we may all do things with our bodies which raise questions, and which may or may not be profitable. However, the act of deliberately piercing the body needs to be considered very soberly. Is it not significant that at the request of Moses, the people gave up much, including earrings, “to make atonement for our souls before Jehovah” (Num. 31: 50)?  Fashions come and fashions go, and it is right that a Christian does not appear bizarre in whatever time he or she lives, but there may be certain things, common in the world around us and not uncommon in Christian circles, that we are better off without.