A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle?

Someone shared this with me today.  It’s basically a story I’ve heard since I was in Sunday School as a small child, and likewise, I was five years old when I first heard this interpretation.  And until I was about 17 or 18, when I learned I had to question these teachings I was being taught, I had no reason to ever question it, but now I'm definitely in questioning mode.

"Did you know the verse 'it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven,' does not mean a sewing needle? In ancient times those gates had two large leaves and a smaller door called the eye of the needle intended only for the passage of pedestrians. When the large gates were closed, getting a camel through the eye of the needle,  it required the camel to shed its load and bend its legs and neck. It was a difficult task that often left scratches. Jesus’ teaching was not impossible for a rich man to get into heaven but a reminder that whether you are rich or poor you must shed your burdens, bend your necks in obedience, kneel before God and acknowledge Him that He is the only way to salvation. And on this journey you will get scratches along the way." (Author unknown)

Unfortunately that interpretation is mainly a mythical one.  Though it goes back many centuries, it doesn't go back anywhere near the First Century A.D.  A gate with the name or nickname "Eye of the Needle" didn’t exist in the Yerushalayim of Yeshua's day.  No such gate existed.  I’ve read some claims of a gate that existed late in the second or third century, in the Pagan Roman city that Rome built on top of Yerushalayim about 50 years after its destruction, but I can’t verify even those claims with complete certainty.

It’s important to recognize not just for pedantic or argumentative reasons, but because the issue is more complicated than that and it obfuscates Yeshua’s actual teaching.  This interpretation that relies on this piece of ersatz history makes it sound as if all a rich man must do is unburden himself... of what, the story is never exactly clear -- problems?  concerns?  wealth?  It's never very clear and varies from telling to telling.  So while the interpretation rightly points out that Yeshua’s point wasn’t just that rich men cannot attain paradise, it wrongly attempts to state that a rich man can attain paradise by dropping his burdens (again, presumably of his wealth).  But Yeshua does not leave us hanging here; he points makes the point much more clear.  As we will come to see, the point was that NOBODY can attain paradise via their own virtue.  Yeshua's tact wasn't merely to exclude the wealthy.  He was making a much greater point that shattered a worldview that was common at the time, even among Yeshua's Talmidim (Disciples).

In First Century Judaism, wealthy people were usually thought to have been blessed with this wealth simply because they were righteous, and this meant that any wealthy person must be righteous or they simply wouldn’t be wealthy.  Similarly, very poor or sick people were considered to be cursed either because of their sins or the sins of their ancestors.  It was a classic "do good, get good; do evil, get evil" formula, and while it wasn't universal, it was a majority opinion that permeated religious dogma of the time.

It's important to recognize that this is NOT so resolutely taught in the Torah or the Tanakh.  Just a look at Sefer Iyob (the Book of Job) demonstrates that.  Instead, it arose out of traditional interpretations extant among many Yahudim (Jews) in the First Century, interpretations of the blessings and curses from Debarim (Deuteronomy), which simply do not work in so generalized a context.

Yeshua was constantly using these claims as a pivot point for his own teaching moments, to challenge the views of the religious hierarchies around him as well as those of his Talmidim (Disciples).  When they heard that a rich man couldn’t enter the Kingdom of Elohim, they were shocked.  "Who then, " they asked in reply, "can be saved?"  Their shock at Yeshua’s statement was due to their association of wealth with blessings and blessings as a reward for righteousness.  If a righteous rich man cannot inherit the Malchut (Kingdom), when what hope would anyone else have?

Yeshua’s answer to their question was pretty clarifying: "With men, this is impossible, but with Elohim, all things are possible."  He’s not saying that only rich men would find it impossible to enter the Kingdom of Elohim; he’s saying it’s impossible for everyone on their own merits.  It requires a relationship with YHWH Elohim, and the atonement provided by Yeshua.

This is very similar to when Yeshua healed a blind man, and his Talmidim asked him whose sin had caused his blindness from birth.  They assumed it had to be someone’s sin.  Yeshua’s answer was that he was born blind not for anyone’s sin, but for this opportunity to show Elohim’s power in him by allowing Yeshua to publicly heal a man blind from birth.  "Your view is WAY too narrow" was Yeshua’s message.

Again, this is really the lesson of Iyob (Job).  The idea that doing rightness always leads to a blessing and doing evil always results in curses is simply incorrect.  It turns Elohim into a set of math and physics formulas instead of a Living Elohim who is not subject to the material world that He created.  Iyob was right that he had not sinned -- YHWH Himself said so at the beginning of the story.  His friends were wrong that Iyob’s current catastrophes had to be due to his sins.

When YHWH confronts him at his request, He goes through a long Speech about just how big the universe is and how He manages all of it, and he repeatedly asks Iyob where he was during all of this complexity.  Iyob should have considered that the universe is much bigger than him and his life.  YHWH is basically saying "Don’t you think that things may be a lot more complicated than you can possibly imagine, and that some decisions I make are just bigger than your ability to understand -- even things about your life?  Don’t you realize that your righteousness and understanding are severely limited."

And that was also His message to Iyob’s friends.  For instance, one of his friends had pointed out this:

"He sends rain on fertile lands, and provides water for the fields.  He gives prosperity for those who lack and he rescues those who suffer.  He blocks the plans of schemers so that their schemes cannot come to fruition." (Iyob / Job 5:10-12)

The metaphor is that one that is very direct -- he provides water to arable lands, to fields for planting, and likewise he will block all troublemakers and sinners while always rescuing their innocent victims.  Once again, it's a reiteration of the formula "do good, get good; do bad, get bad".  Notice the emphasis on arable land, and fields used for crops.  The implication is that it is because the land holders are diligent in taking care of that land that Elohim sends this rain, while the plans of the unrighteous are thwarted.  YHWH in His Speech turns this on its head, replying that He turns arid land arable, sending rain to far off wildernesses, causing grass and food to grow even in the deserts, effectively shattering the moralist metaphor of the friends of Iyob:

"Who channels the torrents of rain, leading the thunderstorms through a path to barren lands, to desert plains where no man lives, to satisfy the wasteland's thirst and cause grass to grow?" (Iyob / Job 38: 25-27)

One of his friends also pointed out that he has only ever observed the righteous being blessed and the wrongdoers punished, and he uses a reference about lions, creatures considered reprehensible in the ancient world, that feed on unwary creatures including other people, and so when they get old they are punished by their teeth breaking out, subsequently starving to death, and having their prides scattered:

"Stop and think about this!  Are the innocent brought wrongfully to death? And when have the upright been destroyed?  I have seen that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same.  At the breathe of Elohim they will die; at the blast of His anger they are wiped out.  The lions roar and growl, but the teeth of younger lions are broken out.  The lion dies out because of a lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are driven away." (Iyob / Job 4:7-11)

YHWH answers in his Speech by implication that he feeds these lions:

"Do you stalk the prey of the lioness?  And satisfy the hunger of her cubs, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their thicket?"  (Iyob / Job 38:39-40)

Iyob recognizes the intent behind this lesson and makes teshuva "in dust and ashes".  He hadn’t really seen just how big Elohim was before.  He was shrinking Elohim down to his size while simultaneously self-aggrandizing. Now he knew that Elohim was beyond comprehension.  That’s a facet of this overall point which Yeshua had to make again and again in the Besorah (Gospels), but getting back to the original point, which was the main point Yeshua was driving home in this particular instance, the presence of blessings does not correlate exactly to the presence of righteousness, and the presence of curses does not correlate exactly to the presence of sin.  As Yeshua says elsewhere:

"Elohim causes his sun to rise upon the righteous and the unrighteous, and sends rain to the just and the unust." (Mattityahu / Matthew 5:45)

Now there’s one last caveat that needs to be explored, and it centers around some linguistic discussion about the Aramaic word "gimel".  Yeshua spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and so he would have likely used the word "gimel" for camel, which would later have been translated into Greek in the texts that are most commonly used for study of the Besorah (Gospels).  But that word "gimel" has a double meaning in Aramaic -- it’s also the word for rope.  To me that meaning of the word makes much more sense.  It still presents the challenge, but of a rope going through the eye of a needle rather than a thread.  Still, that meaning is not certain, because there’s some dispute as to when the term "gimel" took on the meaning of "rope" in Aramaic in addition to the meaning it always had as "camel".  Some have pointed out that the earliest examples we have of this usage are far later, and that's a point that an honest man cannot dismiss.  I still think that's the right meaning, but I couldn't argue with someone who thinks it possibly isn't.

In any case, it’s not necessary to debate which meaning Yeshua intended -- both of them work in this context.  Yeshua was referring to the impossibility of a man to enter the Malchut (Kingdom) of Elohim without Elohim Himself being directly involved.  Man cannot put either a camel or a rope through the eye of a needle.  For men, this is impossible.  But Elohim can put both a rope and camel through the eye of a needle at the same time with a galaxy of room to spare… and He can bring any man, rich or poor, into the Kingdom of Elohim.  Man’s righteousness is ALWAYS limited to his very mortal abilities.  YHWH and His Servant are the keys to entering the Kingdom of Elohim.  We obey Elohim because we love him, not because we think we can earn deliverance.  The sure sign of a man or a woman who has been freely delivered is in their ongoing obedience.