What Lawrence Of Arabia Taught Me About Camels Going Through Needles

[From the archives.]


Did you know there were prehistoric camels even bigger than the ones roaming around the desert today? And the didn’t roam the deserts; they roamed the arctic. The earth was warmer then so, as this picture suggests, they might have lived among the pines there in northern climes.

As sometimes happens, finding the article on huge forest dwelling camels came about the same time I watched a movie about camels too. At least, I think Lawrence of Arabia was about camels, because they were all over the place.

Even Peter O’Toole looks a little bored beside his humongous camel.

I can’t really tell you much about the movie except that it’s one of those everyone always told me I should see, and it’s also one of the longest snorefests in cinematic history. Boring, not much of a script for dialog, wooden acting from a few people who can do better, and – did I already say this? – boring.

A Camel of Any Size

One thing that movie proves, though, is that camels are huge. They have to kneel down for someone to climb into the saddle; none of that foot-in-stirrup-swing-yourself-up stuff like on a horse. And I’ve been to zoos where they have young camels and even those are impressively sized, about 4 feet tall at birth.

No wonder Jesus used the camel for reference when he talked about fitting through the eye of a needle.

It came up when a rich young man asked Jesus how to earn eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it away to the poor, which was too much for the guy to take. He walked away sad, but still he walked away from God. Then Jesus then told his friends that it was hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom. They didn’t understand.

You see, to their way of thinking being wealthy was a sign that you are in God’s favor, that he is blessing you because you deserve his blessing. Jesus didn’t back off a bit, though, stating even more strongly:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25.)

John Alan Elson, Wikimedia

What an image. Can you imagine someone walking into the house and getting a needle, then stepping back outside to the camel pens and holding the eye of the needle up to see which camel was most likely to fit through it?

“Nope, not that one. Not that one either. Hmm, I don’t think any of these camels will fit through this thing!”

This story isn’t about being generous with our riches and providing for the poor, though. Remember what the young man asked? He wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by saying it would take more than he could ever do.

It’s too bad he didn’t stick around for the Q & A session that followed that conversation. If he had, he’d have heard the bit about the camel, and this immediate follow-up between Jesus and his friends:

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:26-27.)

The word “impossible” is hard to miss; it’s huge and powerful, just like a camel. But Jesus says there is someone even more powerful, God.

What can people do to be saved? Nothing. How can people then be saved? By God, the one who makes all things possible. Here’s how it happened: when we were spiritually dead in sin – and you know the dead do not raise themselves – God himself gave us life.

God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions … . For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9.)

What is impossible for us to do for ourselves, God did for us.

What wonderful saving grace.


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15 Responses to What Lawrence Of Arabia Taught Me About Camels Going Through Needles

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    Some time back researchers found that the main gates (to a/the city) would be closed at night. It was possible for travelers to enter through a small opening in the main gate. It was small, a loaded camel would not fit, whereas people could. Even the unloaded camel would not fit without kneeling in some fashion.

    Hard -yes, but not as hard as we have grown up thinking-believing.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve heard theories like that about what Jesus might have meant with the metaphor about the camel and the needle. I’m just glad that when it comes to entering God’s kingdom, it’s not hard at all because Jesus has done the work required for us. I think this is the real blessing to learn from that parable.

      • susan furst says:

        You hit the nail on the head, otherwise the metaphor doesn’t line up with Jesus message. It is not by our works, we cannot do it Jesus alone saves only by our faith in him can we inherit eternal life.

  2. Lawrence of Arabia is on our Netflix queue, your ringing endorsement of it makes me so much more excited to try to tackle that rather large movie.

    Anyhow… I really like how you handle the rich young ruler passage. Granted I’ll be honest, I wonder if I like it because it’s a bit easier (in some ways) than giving up our wealth. I agree that we can’t do anything to earn eternal life, but I guess I wonder if Jesus isn’t getting at something more here too. Maybe even that it is very easy to get focused on our own self-interest. How do I receive eternal life and refusing to give up my wealth/blessings.

    • Tim says:

      I think that’s a central part of the story as well. We let things – possessions, power, prestige – interfere with coming to God.

  3. Mary Anne says:

    I’ve also heard that the word for camel was very similar to a word for a very large rope–think ship’s-cable thickness. So Jesus made a pun that would have people picturing that very thick rope AND a large animal trying to fit through the eye of a needle. Must’ve been good for a few laughs. 8-D

  4. susan furst says:

    I always get goose bumps when I hear the Good News! It is almost too beautiful to comprehend! How sad for the rich young ruler and the rich young rulers of today. Praise to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who offers us life and light in this present darkness and for eternity! We must spread the Word!

  5. I never saw that connection before – the rich man asked what he needed to do. That’s revolutionary! I grew up in a legalistic Christian school and church. I was taught that Jesus’ response – give you everything – was a literal command for the guy to change his whole life, and Jesus expected him to do it immediately (because what is obedience if it isn’t immediate?). The outcome was characterized one of two ways: the rich man slunk away confused, and Jesus nodded as he left, one fewer unworthy soul to trouble the flock. Or, the rich man arrogantly turned his back on Jesus, and Jesus thought about future judgment and got the last laugh. Whether the rich man was pitied or mocked, the passage was taught as a challenge about money/wealth/possessions – what will you give up for Jesus? What would you do in the rich man’s shoes?

    I never thought the conversation was about grace and God’s ability to do for us. Or that Jesus was saying something extreme on purpose, and he didn’t expect to be taken literally. Thanks for writing this piece. Your insights blessed me today, and I am free of one more false idea about Jesus. Because the Jesus I described above? He’s one scary dude, and I want to get as far away from that false Jesus as possible.

  6. Ahab says:

    You found Lawrence of Arabia … boring!?

    :: trembles with rage ::

    In all seriousness, I adore the film. I realize Lawrence of Arabia isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was a fascinating character study. It also reminds viewers that war traumatizes soldiers, leaves misery in its wake, and is usually carried out for opportunistic reasons.

    • Tim says:

      Omar Sharif was phenomenal in it, and every scene with him is worth watching repeatedly. Perhaps I can find the Sharif Abridged Edition somewhere.

  7. Ruth says:

    Tim, I really like that explanation that the reason Jesus said to go the young man to give up his riches was because they had a sort of prosperity doctrine going.
    He thought he was blessed already in his society by God and giving riches away demoted him to not so good in Gods blessing of the day and therefore society and religion.
    God is a whole lot clearer when you are broke, as we are at the moment, but such peace when trying not to solve the problem but letting God deal with it!
    Financial planners all over the country are having pink fits at this attitude, I’m sure, but we have been in cyclic feast and famine, so to speak for over 30 years, and Jesus is a perfect book-keeper as far as I can see!
    Don’t like Lawrence of Arabia? I so do love that film! Peter O’Tooles beautiful voice and eyes may just have something to do with it, but it is fascinating in many ways, especially to my son who was bitten by a camel!
    At a small zoo, dad holds son up to see camel, camel latches onto son’s arm, yell, and indescribable green muck from the camel on his arm, THEN we see the sign…..about camels that bite!
    I always hoped that the rich young ruler came to a ‘bite’ moment and saw what Jesus was telling him when hearing this story…..
    A post of bits and pieces I know, but blessedly God holds me. If not my meanderings together,😊🙏

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