Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
Cuttings in the Flesh
Among the prohibitory laws which God gave the Israelites there was one that expressly forbad the practice embraced in those words, viz. 'Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead' (). It is evident from this law that such a species of self-inflicted torture obtained among the nations of Canaan; and it was, doubtless, to guard His people against the adoption of so barbarous a habit, in its idolatrous form, that God led Moses to reiterate the prohibition: 'They shall not make baldness upon their heads, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beards, nor make any cuttings in their flesh' (; ).
Investing his imaginary deities with the attributes of cruelty, man has, at all times and in all countries, instituted a form of religion consisting in cruel rites and bloody ceremonies. If then we look to the practices of the heathen world, whether of ancient or modern times, we shall find that almost the entire of their religion consisted of rites of deprecation. Fear of the Divine displeasure would seem to have been the leading feature in their religious impressions. The universal prevalence of human sacrifices throughout the Gentile world is, in itself, a decisive proof of the light in which the human mind, unaided by revelation, is disposed to view the Divinity.
It was doubtless such mistaken views of the character of God that led the prophets of Baal () to cut their bodies with lancets, supposing that, by mingling their own blood with that of the offered sacrifice, their god must become more attentive to the voice of entreaty. In fact it was a current opinion among the ancient heathen that the gods were jealous of human happiness; and in no part of the heathen world did this opinion more prevail, according to Sanchoniathon's account, than among the inhabitants of those very countries which surrounded that land where God designed to place his people Israel. Hence we see why God would lay them under the wholesome influence of such a prohibitory law as that under consideration: 'Ye shall not make any cutting in your flesh for the dead.' The ancients were very violent in their expression of sorrow. Virgil represents the sister of Dido as tearing her face with her nails, and beating her breasts with her fists.
The present writer has seen in India the same wild exhibition of grief for the departed relative or friend. Some of the learned think that that law of Solon's, which was transferred by the Romans into the Twelve Tables, that women in mourning should not scratch their cheeks, derived its origin from this law of Moses (). But, however this opinion may be questioned, it would appear that the simple tearing of their flesh out of grief and anguish of spirit is taken, in other parts of Scripture, as a mark of affection: thus (), 'Every head shall be bald, every beard clipped, and upon all cuttings.' Again (): 'Both the great and the small shall die in the land: they shall not be buried, neither shall men lament for them, nor cut themselves.' So (): 'There came from Samaria fourscore men having their heads shaven and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves, with offerings to the house of the Lord.'
Fig. 143—Cuttings in the Flesh
The spirit of Islam is less favorable than that of heathenism to displays of this kind: yet examples of them are not of rare occurrence even in the Muslim countries of Western Asia, including Palestine itself. The annexed figure is copied from one which is represented in many of the books of travel in Egypt and Palestine which were printed in the seventeenth century. It is described by the missionary Eugene Roger as representing 'one of those calenders or devotees whom the Arabs name Balhoaua,' and whom the simple people honor as holy martyrs. He appears in public with a scimitar stuck through the fleshy part of his side, with three heavy iron spikes thrust through the muscles of his arm, and with a feather inserted into a cut in his forehead. He moves about with great composure, and endures all these sufferings, hoping for recompense in the Paradise of Mohammed.
From the examples which have been produced, we may very safely conclude that the expression 'cuttings in the flesh,' in these passages of Scripture, was designed, as already intimated, to declare the feeling of strong affection; as though the living would say, 'See how little we regard the pleasures of life, since now the object of our affection is removed from us!' We must therefore come back to our former position, that it was against those self-inflicted tortures, by which the unhappy devotees vainly thought to deprecate the wrath of their angry gods towards their deceased relatives and friends, this law of Moses was especially aimed.'
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Cuttings in the Flesh'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/c/cuttings-in-the-flesh.html.