Through the Eye of a Needle?
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“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
The camel is a fascinating creature. God specially designed them to serve people in hostile desert conditions. Camels have many unique characteristics that allow them to thrive in conditions that make survival difficult for other beasts of burden such as horses or donkeys.
For example, when a camel exhales, water vapor becomes trapped in its nostrils and is reabsorbed into its body.1 Its heavy coat insulates it from desert heat. Even a camel’s blood is different from any other mammal, allowing it to flow freely during severe dehydration.2 Camels can withstand losing 25% of their body weight to sweating (11-13% more than other mammals).3
Being efficient users of water is only part of the story. Camels can store more water than other animals. A 1300 pound camel can drink 53 gallons of water in three minutes!4 Recall the account in Genesis 24, where Abraham sent his servant to his home country with ten camels to find a wife for his son Isaac. Rebekah willingly drew water for all the men and camels. This may have required her to draw up to 500 gallons.
Camels were prized in Old Testament times. Wealth could be measured by one’s livestock, including camels (Genesis 12:16, 24:35, Job 1:3, 42:12). Camels were used for personal transport, for cargo, and as draft animals. Camels were even milked like cows (Genesis 32:15).
(1) Lewis, Paul (12 July 1981), “A Pilgrimage To A Mystic’s Hermitage In Algeria,” The New York Times, Retrieved 7 March 2009. (2) Eitan, A; Aloni, B; Livne, A (1976). “Unique Properties of the Camel Erythrocyte Membrane II Organization of Membrane Proteins,” Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA), Biomembranes 426: 647- 58.doi:10.1016/0005-2736(76)90129-2. (3) Halpern, E. Anette (1999), “Camel,” Mares; Michael A. Deserts. Univ. of Ok. Press. pages 96-97. (4) “Dromedary,” Hannover Zoo, Archived from the original 25 October 2005. Retrieved 8 January 2008.
Camels are referred to in the Old Testament fifty three times. Though camels were also important in New Testament times, they are only mentioned there six times. In both Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6 they are cited in reference to John the Baptist’s raiment (camel’s hair). The other four references are from our Lord. In one, he refers to the camel metaphorically: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23,24)!
Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees that they showed great concern to comply with certain tangible small features of the law, like tithing from their herb gardens, yet failed to show mercy and compassion to those in need around them, which was much more important.
In this analogy, our Lord used two contrasting creatures well known to his audience, the gnat and the camel. The gnat was one of the smallest creatures the people would have been familiar with, so small they could hardly be seen. These Jesus likens to the scribes and Pharisees tithing from their herb gardens, something so small in our Heavenly Father’s sight as to be hardly noticeable. The camel, perhaps the largest creature the people knew, Jesus likens to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ unwillingness to show kindness and mercy towards the people. These qualities God sees as much more important, as expressed by Jesus in many places and in many ways.
The other three references to camels in the New Testament involve the same incident given in three different places, Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25. In this incident the rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life.
In Mark 10:24-25, the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Here Jesus used an analogy similar to the one mentioned earlier in Matthew 23:24. In this instance he contrasted this large animal to the eye of a needle, the smallest orifice that those listening to him were likely familiar with. He told them that it would be easier for a huge camel to pass through the tiny space of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. In human terms, the camel could not possibly achieve this feat.
Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). With God, a huge camel can pass through the tiny space of the needle’s eye. With God, not only the poor, but also the rich and all of mankind will have an opportunity to come back into a relationship with their creator (1 Timothy 4:10, 1 John 2:2). With the creeds of many, however, this is impossible. By the creeds of men, most of humanity would be lost as unbelievers in this life. But with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26; Acts 24:15). What a wonderful God we have!
Brother Russell, in R5465 and R3844, relates the tradition of the needle’s eye gate. The thought is that when the large main gates into Jerusalem were closed for the night it was still possible for travelers to enter the city through small entryways called the needle’s eye. These gates were too small for a loaded camel to enter. But if the camel’s load was removed and the camel crawled on its knees, it could enter the city.
This seems to be a wonderful illustration of what our Lord was teaching with this incident of the rich young ruler. As the camel could not enter the city standing tall with a load of goods on its back, the rich man cannot enter the kingdom of God proudly carrying the worldly goods he cherishes. For the camel to enter the city, it must first assume a more humble position, on its knees, so that its handler may remove the burden of worldly goods from its back. The camel must then remain in this humble stance, crawling on its knees through the small narrow gate into the joys of the great city.
Likewise, we who desire the blessings of our Lord must humble ourselves before him. We must consecrate all we have, all we are, to him. We thus unburden ourselves of the worldly things that we once held as precious. We can then travel the narrow way of sacrifice until we hear his voice: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matthew 25:21).
This seems like a wonderful analogy. However, the idea of a small gate called the needle’s eye in the walls of Jerusalem has recently fallen out of favor amongst Bible scholars. Evidence of such a gate does not exist. Early writings suggest this application goes back only to the ninth century. Our Lord’s point was the impossibility of salvation by man’s endeavors. This is established by his own conclusion on the matter, as we read before in Mark 10:27, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but … all things are possible with God.”
The camel may also be a metaphor for our entire pilgrim journey on this side of the veil. The camel’s unique characteristics may describe elements of our Christian walk.
As the camel’s long legs carry it high above the searing heat of the desert sands (up to 158°F), we, through the holy Spirit, travel our pilgrim journey high above the corrupting influences of the world. As the camel is able to consume large amounts of water to preserve it through the desert, the holy Spirit allows us to enjoy great truths from God’s Word, preserving us spiritually as we travel the narrow way.
As the camel’s unique physiology allows it to survive in the hostile environment of the hot dry desert, so we survive as a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9) in hostile environments at times. We are “peculiar” in that we are not driven by the things that motivate the worldly. We have higher aspirations to please our Heavenly Father. We are motivated by the hope of the kingdom and the incredible promise that, if faithful, we may bless all the families of the earth.