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Difficult Sayings

Swallow a Camel?
Matthew 23:24

"Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matthew 23:24, on which see the DS article from July 17, 2003).

Jesus humorously refers to the eponymous Pharisees as swallowing/gulping/drowning a camel whilst managing to safeguard their throats from such a small thing as a gnat or flea. It is another proverb of comparative size, but on this occasion we have the gnat in place of the needle.

In this quotation from the Talmud we can again see the contrast in size between little and large, from something as small as a flea to as large as a gnat.

"He that kills a flea on the Sabbath is as guilty as if he killed a camel" (Jerusalem Talmud, Shab. 107).

We noticed in the article on the camel and the needle's eye (Matthew 19:24, on which see the DS article from July 17, 2003) that Jewish-Hebraic idiom classed the camel as the largest known or seen creature, except in regions that were more familiar with the elephant. We see this again, here for, the Arabs have the proverb: "He eats an elephant, and is suffocated with a gnat", i.e., "he is troubled with little things, but pays no attention to great matters" (Barnes on Matthew 23:24).

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable under the entry for 'Strain', "Robert Greene in Mamillia (1583) speaks of 'straining at a gnat and letting pass an elephant'." The AV of Matthew 23:24 has "strain at a gnat" which was familiar English at the time for "strain out". Greene was an intelligent irreverent Norwich born Elizabethan writer who in this work used classical aphorisms and zoological similes to describe romantic love.

GundryF1 points to a possible wordplay between 'camel' gamlâ' and qalmâ', 'gnat' in an Aramaic setting, but I am not convinced. It may explain the choice of gnat over flea, but other than that the above explanation of smallest and largest unclean creatures known seems perfectly satisfactory.

According to Levitical law (Leviticus 11:2-4,41) both gnats and camels were unclean and not to be eaten, and further, in reference to Leviticus 11:32-35, an unclean carcass rendered a drink or water source unclean. Hence, it was quite possible that Jesus was referring to a Pharisaic practice of literally straining gnats out of their wine. For if a gnat should fall into their wine, it would have to be removed before it drowned and as an unclean corpse coming into contact with liquid render it unclean as well at its own inherent uncleanness!

The Jewish Mishnah, containing oral law from around the time of Jesus and earlier, refers to straining wine (Shab 20.2) and the later Talmud adds that eating a gnat or flea was a transgression of the Law tantamount to apostasy (Babylonian Talmud, Hor., 11a; 'Abod. Zar., 26b). In the later time of Maimonides gnat-swallowing was to be punished by a beating for having eaten something unclean.

Jesus was not criticising their gnat-straining but their inadvertent camel-swallowing. Just as, according to the previous verse (v23), they tithed mint and cumin, and left judgement, mercy and faith, to fend for themselves, so they should have ensured that they strained all unclean bodies from their drinks including the camels. "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23, NKJV). The criticism of the Pharisees was not about what they said, but what they chose to do. Their hypocrisy was to teach well and then not do accordingly, or to concentrate on one aspect of law to the detriment of the practice of another "weightier" part.


FOOTNOTES:
F1: Gundry, R.H., Matthew, Eerdmans, 1994
F2: Maimonides, Hilch. Maacolot Asurot, 2.20,22, quoted in Gill on Matthew 23:24

   
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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. Their "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at www.biblicalhebrew.com.

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