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There is a curious law in Leviticus that seems to refer to avoiding an ancient pagan rite.

Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:28

Mathew Henry says:

They must not make cuts or prints in their flesh for the dead; for the heathen did so to pacify the infernal deities they dreamt of, and to render them propitious to their deceased friends.

My question is does anyone know of any secular source, or have an internal exegesis, that would either verify this claim or cast an alternate theory?

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Not an answer but I'm just hoping to toss some info in for anyone who may be answering ... Ketovet Ka'aka is a hapax legomenon (only occurs once). –  swasheck Jun 12 '12 at 14:36
    
Rashi says: "This was the practice of the Amorites: to make cuts in their flesh when a person [related] to them died." But he doesn't cite a source. –  Gone Quiet Jun 12 '12 at 15:11

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John Gill uses these sources:

Jarchi says, it was the custom of the Amorites, when anyone died, to cut their flesh, as it was of the Scythians, as Herodotus relates, even those of the royal family; for a king they cut off a part of the ear, shaved the hair round about, cut the arms about, wounded the forehead and nose, and transfixed the left hand with arrows; and so the Carthaginians, who might receive it from the Phoenicians, being a colony of theirs, used to tear their hair and mouths in mourning, and beat their breasts; and with the Romans the women used to tear their cheeks in such a manner that it was forbid by the law of the twelve tables, which some have thought was taken from hence: and all this was done to appease the infernal deities, and to give them satisfaction for the deceased, and to make them propitious to them, as Varro affirms; and here it is said to be made "for the soul", for the soul of the departed, to the honour of it, and for its good, though the word is often used for a dead body: now, according to the Jewish canons, whosoever made but one cutting for a dead person was guilty, and to be scourged; and he that made one for five dead men, or five cuttings for one dead man, was obliged to scourging for everyone of them: nor print any marks upon you; Aben Ezra observes, there are some that say this is in connection with the preceding clause, for there were who marked their bodies with a known figure, by burning, for the dead; and he adds, and there are to this day such, who are marked in their youth in their faces, that they may be known; these prints or marks were made with ink or black lead, or, however, the incisions in the flesh were filled up therewith; but this was usually done as an idolatrous practice; so says Ben Gersom, this was the custom of the Gentiles in ancient times, to imprint upon themselves the mark of an idol, to show that they were his servants.

You may trace the links through the reference.

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While not a "secular source", there is a reference in 1 Kings 18 to false prophets cutting themselves in the "showdown" between the prophets of Baal and Elijah.

v28:

So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them.

Also, in Leviticus 21, in the descriptions of the Lord's priests:

They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh.

it is indicated that cutting oneself is wrong.

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Good reminder about 1 Kings. I will wait a couple days for a secular source, and if nothing shows up I will accept this answer. Cheers. –  Mike Jun 12 '12 at 15:40

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