Cuttings in the Flesh
(sereT, sareTeth): For relatives or friends to cut or beat themselves even to free blood-flowing, especially in the violence of grief in mourning for their dead (see BURIAL; MOURNING), was a widely prevalent custom among ancient peoples, and is well-nigh universal among uncivilized races today (see Spencer, Prin. of Soc., 3rd edition, I, 163 ff). The fact is abundantly attested for most of the nations of antiquity, but there are two notable exceptions, the Egyptians (Herod. ii.61, 85; Wilkinson, Anc. Egyptian II, 374), and the Hebrews (De 14:1; Le 21:5). According to Plutarch (Sol. 21) Solon forbade the women of Athens to beat themselves to the effusion of blood, and the laws of the Twelve Tables, quoted by Cic. (De leg. ii.23) contained a like injunction. Among the ancient Arabs the forbidden practice was associated, as among the Hebrews, with the cutting off of the hair (Wellhausen, Skizzen, III, 160 f).
That the prohibition among the Hebrews was urgently called for is made clear by the way it is dealt with by the Law and the prophets. The Law of Holiness reads: "Ye are the children of Yahweh your God: ye shall not cut yourselves" (De 14:1), or "make any incision" (sereT; Le 19:28, sareTeth; Septuagint entomis) in the flesh "for the dead." Probably the earliest reference to the custom as actually prevalent among the Hebrews is in Ho 7:14 (ERVm). It was widely prevalent in the time of Jeremiah among his countrymen, even as among the Philistines (Jer 47:5) and the Moabites (Jer 48:37; compare Am 8:10; Isa 3:24; 15:2; 22:12; Mic 1:16; Eze 7:18).
In seeking for the reason or purpose underlying all such prohibitions, we may note, first, that the "cuttings" and "baldness" forbidden are alike said to be "for the dead." Not less explicitly are they said to be incompatible with Israel's unique relation to Yahweh--a relation at once of sonship (De 14:1) and of consecration (De 14:2). Moreover such mutilations of the body are always dealt with as forming part of the religious rites of the heathen (as of the Canaanitish Baal (1Ki 18:28) note "after their manner," see article inHDB , under the word). Both such shedding of blood and the dedication of the hair are found in almost all countries of that day in intimate connection with the rituals of burial and the prevailing belief in the necessity of propitiating the spirit of the deceased. The conclusion, then, seems clearly warranted that such tokens of grief were prohibited because they carried with them inevitably ideas and associations distinctly heathen in character and so incompatible with the pure religion of Yahweh, and unworthy of those who had attained to the dignity of the sons ("children") of Yahweh.
See also STIGMATA , MARK;
Benzinger, Heb Arch., section 23; Nowack, Heb Arch., I, 33 f; Tylor, Prim. Cult.; W. R. Smith, Rel Semitic, Lect IX; and Comm., Knobel-Dillmann, Ex-Lev on Le 19:28; Driver, Dt on Le 14:1; and Lightfoot, Gal on Le 6:17.
George B. Eager