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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Cuttings in the Flesh

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CUTTINGS IN THE FLESH . This expression occurs only in Leviticus 19:28 ; Leviticus 21:5 . The former passage runs thus: ‘Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead.… I am the Lord.’ The same prohibition, otherwise expressed in the original, is found in the earlier Deuteronomic legislation ( Deuteronomy 14:1 ). The reference is to the practice, not confined to the Hebrews or even to their Semitic kinsfolk, of making incisions in the face, hands ( Jeremiah 48:37 ), and other parts of the body to the effusion of blood, as part of the rites of mourning for the dead (see Marks, § 4), and by a natural transition, to which the wearing of sackcloth forms a parallel, in times of national calamity. The custom is referred to without condemnation by the pre-Deuteronomic prophets, see Hosea 7:14 (corrected text, as RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ), and esp. Jeremiah 16:6 ; Jeremiah 41:5 ; Jeremiah 47:5 .

The underlying motive of this practice and the reasons for its legislative prohibition have been variously stated. It may be regarded as certain, however, that the practice had its root in primitive animistic conceptions regarding the spirits of the departed. The object in view may have been either so to disfigure the living that they should be unrecognizable by the malignant spirits of the dead, or, more probably, by means of the effusion of blood which originally, perhaps, was brought into contact with the corpse to maintain or renew the bond of union between the living and the dead.

The explanation just given is confirmed by the allied practice, springing from similar motives, of shaving off the whole (Ezekiel 44:20 , cf. Bar 6:31 ) or part of the head hair or of the beard in token of mourning ( Isaiah 15:2 ; Isaiah 22:12 , Ezekiel 7:18 , Amos 8:10 etc.). Both practices, the incisions and the shaving, are named together in the legislative passages above cited. Thus Deuteronomy 14:1 forbids ‘ baldness between the eyes,’ i.e. the shaving of the front of the scalp, ‘for the dead’; in Leviticus 19:27 it is forbidden to ‘round the corners’ of the head, i.e. to shave the temples (cf. Jeremiah 9:26 ; Jeremiah 25:23 , where certain desert tribes are named the ‘corners clipt,’ from their habit of shaving the temples, see Hair), and to ‘mar the corners of the beard’ (cf. Jeremiah 48:37 ). These references recall the wide-spread heathen practice of hair-offerings, which goes back to the antique conception that the hair, like the blood, is the seat of life.

The reason of the twofold prohibition now becomes apparent. With the growth of loftier conceptions of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] and His worship, these practices, with their animistic background and heathen associations, were seen to be unworthy of a people who owed exclusive devotion to their covenant God, a thought implied in the concluding words of Leviticus 19:28 ‘I am Jahweh.’ The practice of gashing the body till the blood ran, as part of the ritual of Baal worship, is attested by 1 Kings 18:28 .

The further prohibition of Leviticus 19:28 ‘nor print any marks upon you,’ refers to another widely prevalent custom in antiquity, that of tattooing and even branding ( 3Ma 2:29 ) the body with the name or symbol of one’s special deity, a practice to which there is a reference in Isaiah 44:5 , to be rendered as in RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] , ‘another shall write on his hand. Unto the Lord,’ or, better, as one word, ‘Jahweh’s.’

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Cuttings in the Flesh'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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