Squeezing through the Eye of the Needle

Just how large was the eye of a needle, and how hard would it be to get a camel through it?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "The Rich Young Man". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

As the rich young man went away sadly, the Master looked around at His disciples and exclaimed, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).

The Master’s words shocked the disciples. In their eyes, wealth may have indicated God’s blessing on a man. The wealthy gave charity. They sustained the synagogues and the academies of the sages. They made the generous donations to the Temple to underwrite expensive sacrifices. The wealthy had leisure to study Torah. Why, then, was it so difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom? If the rich, who give charity and study Torah and support the synagogue and the Temple, find it difficult to enter, who then can attain the Messianic Era? The disciples were amazed at His words, but Yeshua emphatically repeated the sentiment again: “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” (Mark 10:24-25).

Like the shocked disciples, Bible interpreters have worried over these words for a long time. An apocryphal explanation favored by preachers explains that “the eye of the needle” was actually a small pedestrian gate in the larger double doors of Jerusalem’s gate through which a camel could conceivably pass with difficulty. No such gate existed. The eye of a needle in the days of the disciples was not much larger than the eye of a needle in our day and age—just large enough to pass a piece of thread through, leaving absolutely no possibility for passing a camel through. In the Talmud, the sages used the same idiom to describe the impossible but spoke of elephants instead of camels. Just as the English idioms “when pigs fly” or “when hell freezes over” mean that the thing in question will never happen, to say “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” means that a thing cannot happen: the impossible is easier.

When Yeshua declared it impossible for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom. His disciples asked with dismay, “Who then can be saved?” Looking at them gravely, Yeshua replied, “With men, this is impossible” (Matthew 19:26).

In one way or another, we are all like the rich man who went away sad. Each of us possesses elements he or she is unable to surrender to the Master. In one way or another, each person ultimately disqualifies himself or herself for the prize of inheriting the kingdom. From man’s perspective, entering the kingdom of heaven is more difficult than passing a camel through the eye of a needle; it is more than impossible. The Master continued, “However, all things are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26).

Man cannot achieve eternal life and entrance to the kingdom without God’s divine intervention. The rabbis explain the partnership between man and God in a similar manner. The sages taught that if a man will at least make the effort to repent and turn to the Almighty, God will span the rest of the distance Himself. Where man’s efforts fall short, God will undertake to complete the task. In a similar manner, the Midrash Rabbah says that if man will open a tiny door of repentance (no bigger than the eye of a needle), God will accept it:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “My sons, if you will give me an opening of repentance no bigger than the size of the eye of a needle, I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass.” (Genesis Rabbah)

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