This Composite Camel with Attendant represents an anonymous miniature manuscript illumination, potentially from late-sixteenth-century Iran. Lavish colours and textures are used to suggest the sky, ground, and cargo which frame its central subject, the camel, whose outline circumscribes a visual puzzle in browns and beiges.
Using a popular technique, perhaps an image of the oneness of all creatures in God, the camel consists of animals, fantastic beasts, and people of differing cultures. Caravans connected the world and its wealth through the profits of foreign trade and cultural exchange. Could we imagine this camel as a Silk Road stitched together? In talking about camels and eternal life (Mark 10:25), Jesus adapts a well-known proverbial motif in which a big animal squeezing through a tiny space is used to suggest something impossible or surreal (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 55b; Marcus 2009: 731, 736). The metaphor of the camel, needle, and entrance to the kingdom of heaven also appears in the Qur’an (al-A’rāf 7.40). Ideas and scriptural poetry spread by trade, as well as commodities. Does this image point us beyond the comforting boundaries we often impose on the Gospels?
This patchwork vision of a camel might also invite us to juxtapose Jesus’s challenge about the salvation of the rich in Mark with the camels of a Nativity scene: Luke’s caravan of three royal magi following a star. They were the first Gentiles to recognize Christ. Here too something new is stitched into the story, and again we may ask: what role will wisdoms from other cultures and traditions play along the way to eternal life?
‘Then who can be saved?’ (Mark 10:26) Impossible combinations may also be scary and unsettling—not unlike Jesus’s promised ‘persecutions’ (v.30). This multiplex camel has a single attendant, but his identity too is ambiguous. We may imagine him as a figure for Christ, for the rich young man, for us who ‘attend’ to the story and each other.
The least expected are suddenly revealed as first (v.31). Perhaps the ‘hundredfold’ gifts in the ‘age to come’ will arrive like a composite kingdom (v.30): a quilted-camel greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps this paradoxical composite camel—monks and lovers, demons and dogs, rabbit-hooves and fox-tails—suggests, in one moment, the whole of Creation’s long caravan toward God.
Marcus, Joel. 2009. Mark 8–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press)
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” 21And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” 28Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”