About camels, needles and rich people

About camels, needles and rich people

2012-09-23
More often than not, interpreting the Bible very literally is a safer approach than introducing all sorts of creative explanations. I am about to kill the Bible myth of camels walking on their knees through city gates.

Travelling the country doing teaching and preaching, I often come across a Bible myth that really seems to stick with Christians. The myth offers an explanation to a Bible passage that many people find difficult to grasp. You can find the Bible story in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). Check out the link elsewhere in this article to read the Bible passage online.

Here´s the story ...

A rich young man, that seemed pious, and probably he was in many respects, approached Jesus for guidance on how to obtain eternal life. Jesus very clearly gave him instructions to sell everything he owned and to give it to the poor. Obviously the man became very sad, because he possessed great wealth.

Jesus then makes the funny remark that it is hard for rich people to get into the kingdom of heaven. He even goes on to state that it is even harder than for a camel to go through an eye of a needle. The disciples rightfully exclaimed: "Who can then be saved?", and Jesus concludes on their behalf that it is indeed impossible for a man to save himself.

So what´s the myth all about?

The Bible myth that I am about to kill is that there supposedly was a small side gate in the walls of Jerusalem, and it was called the eye of the needle. In the evening, when the main gates were closed, this was the only point of entry to the city. So, on the rare occasion when you came by camel and needed to enter late, you needed to unpack the camel and have it fall to its knees and literally walk on its knees in to the city. So, in the eyes of many, this passage in the Bible refers to this historical place and practice. Henceforth, the intentions of Jesus is that by unloading your burdens and humbling yourself, you were allowed to enter heaven. And it was this very exercise that Jesus just had prescribed for this rich, young man.

Laying off burdens and becoming humble is great of course, but is this a trustworthy explanation of this passage? Is it in alignment with the gospel? Is it logical? Is it supported by historical or archeological facts? How does this go with basic knowledge about zoology?

Killing the myth

Problem 1:
If Jesus meant that doing certain acts to become saved was simply very difficult ... why does he follow through to say that it is impossible? Which is also verified by the disciples´ response.

Problem 2:
The entirety of the gospel message is that the only act that can save us is the act that Jesus performed on the cross. This is in concurrence with Jesus´remark in this passage that for man, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

Problem 3:
A camel can indeed stand on its front knees. It does that when it gets up and when it lays down. However, a camel only has knees on its front legs. The same height joint on its back legs go the opposite direction. So it is not possible for a camel to walk on its knees. The closest would be for a camel to be leaning on its front two knees and dragging itself forward while leaning heavily. Untill I see hard evidence of that being possible, I find it hard to believe.

Problem 4:
In the middle east, another saying exist to exclaim that something is impossible. This exclamation is "for an elephant to get through a needle´s eye". Sounds familiar and even related to our camel expression?

So, what´s the right understanding then?

The only thing that can save a man is surrender to God through the person Jesus Christ. Nothing we can do will change that. If a serial killer rate 5 on a cosmic scale of goodnees - with 100 being the top - and maybe mother Theresa rates at 90 - they both need Jesus Christ to get to 100. As Jesus says in this very passage: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

The fact that Jesus starts his rhetoric by saying that it is hard for a rich man to get into heaven has probably confused many readers. The Bible passage of the rich, young man is a transcript of a conversation where Jesus starts with an under-statement stating ironically that it is "hard", and where he progresses to use the saying with the camel as a way of really hammering that this self-salvation through good deeds is indeed impossible. And when the disciples respond to that, Jesus explain as plainly as possible that this was exactly what he meant. It is indeed impossible.

So, why should the guy sell all his stuff then?

So, if grace is a gift that you can receive, why did Jesus put up this requirement for the young man? Jesus observed the young man and understood that his possessions had taken possession of him. He was no longer in charge. All his stuff had taken over. So to be able to receive a gift that required to put God first, he needed to free up some space.

Jesus talks a lot about how money easily steals our hearts and blinds our eyes. Another common misinterpretation for this Bible passage is that Jesus in general prescribes poverty and to sell all your belongings and give to the poor. That is far from the truth. Jesus acknowledges that rich people have a harder time surrendering than other people, but the advice to this young man is highly personal. So, by taking the advice to ONE young man and making it into a commandment for everyone, we also over-interpret the words of Jesus.

This Bible passage is not about humility and pulling it together. It is also not about living in poverty. The only purpose of this Bible passage is to point to Christ as our only means of salvation, and to point out that we must choose to accept the gift fully.

So, both regarding camel´s walking through needles and everyone giving away everything, let´s agree to read what´s IN the Bible, and not add a whole lot that we think should have been there.

 

 

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