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Hebrew Thoughts

midh'bâr - מִדְבָּר (Strong's #4057)
Wilderness, desert

midh'bâr 'wilderness, desert' מִדְבָּר (Strong's #4057)

"the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness..." (Genesis 16:7, NKJ)

The word מִדְבָּר midh'bâr "wilderness, desert" (Strong's #4057, x271) derives from דָּבַר dâbhar "to speak, arrange/order, lead" (Strong's #1696, x1143) in the sense of "driving to pasture" (Exodus 3:1), rather than being a desolate place. Instead, it is often a place for grazing and its inhabitability is only relative. The מִדְבָּר midh'bâr of Jordan and of Judah both contain cities and whilst that of Sinai lacks large built up towns there are many oases there.

In Psalm 65:12 [Heb. v13] "the pastures of the wilderness drip" in a passage speaking of the earth and God's bounty, rather than barrenness. The מִדְבָּר midh'bâr is also where God spoke דָּבַר dâbhar, hence in some historical and theological sense for Israel it is also the place of speech. Subsequent mystics and prophets would go out to the מִדְבָּר midh'bâr to hear God's voice.

Indeed Song of Solomon 4:3 uses מִדְבָּר midh'bâr for "mouth/speech" - "Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech/mouth is comely". Ironically, the general lack of habitation might make for the wilderness being a more silent place than towns or cities.

Job 38:26 gives a clue that in general it refers to space without habitation "where no man is, the wilderness, wherein there is no man". The fact that many of the places called Wilderness were subsequently populated does not counter this.

Its main use, then, is for wilderness or desert by which it is translated 99% of the time. It occurs most frequently in the various passages detailing Israel's wandering in the wilderness, hence Exodus (25x), Numbers (44x) and Deuteronomy (19x). Numbers is actually called בְּמִדְבַּר BeMidhbar in the Hebrew from its very first verse opening with the words "And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai". The Psalms, Isaiah and Jeremiah, also account for around 20x instances each.

Isaiah 32:15 at first describes the wilderness as something less than a fruitful field and then virtually equates it through the parallelism of v16. So a wilderness need not be or remain either empty, dry or barren.

Though the wilderness is sometimes described negatively as without food, fountains, grapes, water, or rain, nonetheless the question: "Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?" (Psa 78:19) is intended to be rhetorical.

Its second use in the Bible, in Genesis 16:7, where an angel meets Hagar in the wilderness is by a fountain, so not totally barren, and the ensuing prophecy is Ishmael's birth, long and fruitful lineage, that would populate the Arabian מִדְבָּר midh'bâr.


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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

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'Hebrew Thoughts'

zâqên - זָקֵן (Strong's #2204)
To be old

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