Copyright © 1999, 2016 by Larry G. Overton
Several days ago, I revised an old article about tattoos and published it here on my website. Even as I was re-writing the 17-year-old article, I thought about this related topic of body piercing, and an article I wrote about that, also 17 years ago. I decided to revise, update and publish it as well.
What occasioned the article all those years ago was a chance meeting with Steve, an old friend. I don’t mean “old” in the sense that he is advanced in age (although he is older than me). I mean that I’ve known Steve for 37 years. We haven’t always had been in contact over those years. In the mid-1980s I had moved away to the mission field of Papua New Guinea, and then subsequently moved back to Corpus.
So in 1989, I bumped into Steve. In the process of catching up on what was going on in his life, I noticed an earring. Now as I said, Steve is older than me. Our birthdays are less than two months apart. Seeing a guy pushing 40 get an earring made me wonder if he was having some sort of mid-life crisis.
I asked him about it, and found out that a large part of his motivation behind getting this earring had to do with making a statement about being a willing, lifelong servant of His Lord and Master, Jesus. He cited as Scriptural precedent for his actions the Jewish Old Testament law concerning a freed slave not wanting to leave his master (Exodus 21:1-6; Deuteronomy 15:12-17). All of this did not make me want to go right out and get my ear pierced, but it did elicit feelings of respect for and admiration of Steve’s motivations and faith.
It is quite popular these days to have one’s body pierced and/or to have tattoos. It is not unusual even amongst people professing faith in Christ, such as the friend mentioned above (although the ranks of pierced and printed believers are for the most part younger than Steve). Some Christians, however, have a problem with this. This article is a natural extension of the one I just published, Tattoos and the People of God. In this one, I aim to present a factual answer to the question: Do the Scriptures prohibit body piercing for Christians?
As was the case with tattoos, I can answer this question with a single word: “No.” Body piercing, having an earring or nose ring as a form of body decoration is not forbidden in Scripture. On the contrary, the Scriptures actually record instances of the people of God having earrings and nose rings. From the time of the patriarchs onward, ancient Middle Eastern culture allowed for such piercing for jewelry for men, women and children.
The first reference to ornamental jewelry that required body piercing is found in Genesis chapter 24. Abraham sends his oldest and most trusted servant (Eliezer of Damascus? see ch. 15:2) to search for a wife for his son Isaac in his native country, Aram Naharayim, in the town of Nahor. When Abraham’s servant was providentially led (in answer to prayer) to Rebekah, he gave her two gold bracelets and a golden nose ring (Genesis 24:22, 30, 47).
The Hebrew term here translated as “nose ring” is nezem [נֶזֶם]. Now if you’re reading this in the King James Version, you’re probably confused, because the KJV rendering of this term in each of these verses in Genesis 24 is “earring.” Even more confusing, in the KJV rendering of verse 47 you read “…I put the earring upon her face.”
Nezem literally means a ring, and its application according to Hebrew lexicons can be to either a nose ring or an earring, though it seems that the primary application is to a nose ring, which was a woman’s ornament. Another Hebrew term, ‘āgīl [עָגִיל], basically meaning a hoop, is more commonly defined as an earring. (Numbers 31:50; Ezekiel 16:12.) As for nezem, the context determines whether it refers to a nose ring (Genesis 24:22, 30, 47; Proverbs 11:22; Isaiah 3:21 [“nose jewels,” KJV]; Ezekiel 16:12) or an earring (Genesis 35:4; Exodus 32:2-3). At times, the context does not help in determining conclusively whether nose ring or earring is meant (see Judges 8:24, 25; Job 42:11; Proverbs 25:12).
Whatever the Hebrew term, it is clear from the Hebrew Scriptures that a piercing of the flesh (whether earlobe, septum or nostril) was required for jewelry. McClintock and Strong’s Biblical encyclopedia states “These rings were set with jewels and hung from the nostril, as ear-rings from the ears, by holes bored to receive them.” It is obvious, then: far from being a condemned practice, the piercing of one’s body for the wearing of jewelry was a common practice in the Middle East throughout all periods of Biblical history.
And before closing out this discussion, let’s look more closely at the Scripture references cited at the beginning of this article, namely, Exodus 21:1-6 and Deuteronomy 15:12-17. These two parallel passages speak of covenant stipulations for the releasing of a slave after seven years. If, however, that slave did not want to leave, but chose to stay and continue to serve his master, then the ceremony indicating this slave’s intention was piercing through his earlobe to the doorpost of his master’s house with an “awl.”
This “awl” is a tool mentioned only in these two verses in the Hebrew Scriptures, so there is little information to describe it. What we do know, however, is that the Hebrew term martsēa‘ [מַרְצֵעַ] was derived from the primary verb rātsa‘ [רָצַע] that meant to bore, pierce, that it was “an instrument for boring a small hole…” and was probably “used by sandal-makers and other workers of leather.” At any rate, what is clear from these passages is that body piercing, even when not connected with the wearing of jewelry, was approved, even (under certain conditions) stipulated, by God.
The conclusion we must come to, then, is undeniable. The Scriptures do not condemn or forbid the piercing of one’s body for cultural/ornamental reasons. While I would not recommend body piercing, I cannot with Scriptural authority condemn it. While those of an older generation of believers might not like this current cultural trend, we must realize that it is not Scripture that makes us uncomfortable with it, but our cultural background.
I’m a part of that older generation of believers that doesn’t care for this current cultural trend. I’ll say the same thing about piercings that I said about tattoos in my “Tattoos and the People of God” article: “Life has enough pain; I’m not going to self-inflict.” I am expressing my own opinion here, but as you can see, I am also balancing that with the writing of an article that affirms one’s liberty to get piercings. In this we have liberty regarding personal preference and cultural expression. There is no Biblical prohibition.
To the believer in Jesus that decides to exercise this freedom, I would offer a word of advice and a word of caution.
First, the advice. Moderation is your friend. If you choose to have an excessive number of piercings and ornaments on your face, you will ultimately be limiting yourself. Certain subcultures within society might think it’s cool to be that perforated, but most of society will not. Such choices in your youth can limit your future opportunities for employment and for influence. You may protest, “That’s not fair!” But you can’t deny that it’s true.
Now as for the word of caution, check your attitude. If you as a Christian young person choose piercings and ornamental jewelry as a means of defiance of cultural norms or out of rebelliousness in your heart, then you’re in the wrong even if you have the right. To put that another way, if rebellion is your motivation for body piercing, then even though piercing is not wrong in and of itself, you will be in the wrong because of your attitude. In closing, I’ll leave you with two Biblical statements that can serve as guidelines.
“Man looks at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7, LGO)
“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be controlled by anything. [1 Corinthians 6:12, LGO]
 Aram Naharayim [אֲרַ֥ם נַֽהֲרַ֖יִם] is Hebrew for “Aram of the two rivers.” This region was also referred to by the Greek term Mesopotamia [Μεσοποταμία], “between the rivers.” These geographic terms refer to the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now known as Iraq and Kuwait. “Nahor” was the name of Abraham’s brother (see verse 15 and Genesis 11:26). Apparently, the town was named for him.
 Kittel, Rudolf, Elliger, Karl & Rudolph, Wilhelm, [BHS] Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Fünfte verbesserte auflage (“Fifth improved edition”). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (“German Bible Society”), © 1969/77, 1997, pgs. 35f.
 Another example of a confusing and awkward rendering of this term in the KJV is in Ezekiel 16:12: “I put a jewel on thy forehead…”
 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, & Wilhelm Gesenius, [B-D-B-G], The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979. pgs. 633-34; R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. & Bruce K. Waltke, [TWOT] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. II. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, 1981; Ludwig Koehler & Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1958, p. 605; William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner. Leiden • Boston • Koln: Brill, 2000, p. 232.
 B-D-B-G, p. 722; TWOT, Vol. II; Koehler & Baumgartner, p. 679; Holladay, 264.
 BHS, pgs. 273, 918.
 John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. First published by Harper and Brothers, 1867-1887. Reprinted in Grand Rapids, Michigan by Baker Book House Company, 1981. Vol. VII, page 195.
 B-D-B-G, p. 599; TWOT, Vol. I; Koehler & Baumgartner, p. 568; Holladay, 216.
 B-D-B-G, p. 954; TWOT, Vol. II; Koehler & Baumgartner, p. 907; Holladay, 346.
 McClintock & Strong, op. cit. Vol. I, page 571. See also Schuster’s reference to “cobbler” on the verb rātsa‘ in Koehler & Baumgartner, p. 907.