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Wilderness (2)

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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WILDERNESS.—The word or words (more or less synonymous) which the Authorized and Revised Versions translation by ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert’ afford a striking example of the difficulties which translators, and after them the ordinary readers of Holy Scripture, have to contend with, because that word does not convey to our mind the idea of something we know: in our western European countries there is not, properly speaking, any desert or wilderness, in the Biblical sense of the word. Thus, unable to consult our own experience, we have to fall back upon books we have read, and upon notions obtained in that way. Immediately there rises in our memory the view of a desert of sand, stretching itself out of sight in a complete solitude, and giving to the caravans of travellers scarcely any other choice but death from thirst, or burial under the moving soil blown up by some terrible windstorm. Such is the classical representation of a desert or wilderness, and it is a constant source of errors for the understanding of numerous passages of the Bible where that word occurs. There is no ‘desert of sand’ either in Palestine or in the neighbouring countries. In fact, the Hebrew word which is usually translation ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ (midbâr) does not in the least convey the idea of solitude or desolation; on the contrary, it belongs to a root which means ‘to pasture,’ and therefore, etymologically,’ feeding-ground’ or ‘pasture-land’ would seem to be the most exact translation. But if we should adopt it, another ambiguity would be created, and a false notion suggested. Indeed, for a European reader, a pasture is a meadow with abundant grass, which is not at all true of the-Palestinian midbâr.

For a correct understanding of the meaning of the word ‘wilderness’ in the Bible, one has to remember that there were—and are still—nomads in Bible lands. Those people are not addicted to agricultural life, but to the breeding of cattle; they live on the borders of cultivated lands, between these and other regions which are either uninhabitable or practically uninhabited. The territories held by those nomads—called Bedawîn in modern times—are not without water and grass; but these indispensable resources, required for the herds, are both scarce, and the tribes of shepherds, are compelled to remove their camps from one place to another for feeding and watering their cattle. The midbâr is therefore essentially the ground occupied by nomad tribes; it forms around agricultural districts a zone variable in extension or breadth; sometimes culture wins over uncultivated lands, sometimes these regain spaces formerly tilled and sown. At the boundary itself of those two tracts of land live some populations which hold a sort of intermediate position in the progress of civilization: they are half-sedentary, half-shepherds (half-Fellahîn, half-Bedawîn), and, dwelling still under tents, they cultivate the ground, plough, sow, and reap (cf. Max von Oppenheim, Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf, 1900, ii. pp. 78–84). Even in the interior of cultivated districts, where villages and towns exist, there are frequently patches of land where the soil remains abandoned to itself, without culture, and they offer, therefore, the same character as the exterior zone inhabited by nomads. Those spaces are generally used as pasture-grounds for the cattle, and have also been called midbâr. They are found even near towns; thus the OT mentions the wildernesses of Gibeon, of Tekoa, of Damascus, of Riblah (Massoretic Text Diblah, Ezekiel 6:14). Besides those local denominations, others occur which apply to peripheric regions: wildernesses of Shur, of Sin, of Sinai, of Paran, of Ẓin, of Kadesh, of Ethan (or Yam-Suph), of Maon, of Ziph, of Beersheba, of Engedi, of Jeruel, of Beth-aven, of Edom, of Moab, of Kedemoth. Several of these wildernesses, as their names show, cover vast spaces; others, on the contrary, represent quite limited places.

One of the most important deserts is the Wilderness of Judah, twenty hours in length and five in breadth, which constitutes, with the Mountain (Har), the South (Negeb), and the Low-Country (Shephelah), the four parts of the territory of that tribe. The Wilderness of Judah is the region situated east of the watershed, between this high line and the western shore of the Dead Sea. The wildernesses of Ziph and of Maon are portions of it in the south, as well as those of Engedi and Tekoa in the middle; and finally also, in the north, the rough, barren, and uninhabited district where the road runs from Jerusalem to Jericho (cf. Luke 10:30 ff.) That wilderness is an uneven, undulating table-land, where conical hills and rocky hillocks arise, where deep ravines are cut between steep walls of rocks; it falls down towards the east—here in gradual declivities, there in sudden and abrupt slopes—in the direction of the Dead Sea, situated 1500 or 2000 feet below. No river or rivulet, no trees, no villages; a soil without vegetation, either sandy or stony, here and there with scarce and meagre grass, which is avidly sought for by small flocks of sheep and goats, belonging to a few miserable camps of black or brown tents. That wilderness was the refuge of David when persecuted by Saul (1 Samuel 22-26); he knew it from the time of his youth, having, when a boy, followed there the herds of his father (1 Samuel 16:11; 1 Samuel 17:15; 1 Samuel 17:34). Later on the same region sheltered Judas Maccabaeus and his companions (1 Maccabees 9:33).

The wildernesses mentioned in the Bible are not all as inclement and inhospitable as the Wilderness of Judah. They are sometimes inhabited; they contain wells and cisterns, towns (Joshua 15:61 f., 1 Kings 9:18, 2 Chronicles 8:4) and houses (1 Kings 2:34), herds of sheep (1 Samuel 17:28), and pastures (Psalms 65:13 f).

The Gospel of John alludes twice to the sojourn of Israel in the wilderness (John 3:14 Moses lifting the serpent, and John 6:31; John 6:40 the manna). The Synoptics do not mention it; but it is spoken of in the Book of Acts, specially in Stephen’s discourse (John 7:36-44) and in John 13:18, and in 1 Corinthians 10:5 and Hebrews 3:8 (quoting Psalms 95:8) and John 3:17.

The Wilderness of Judah is named several times in connexion with John the Baptist. His youth, according to Luke 1:80, was spent ‘in the deserts’; that is, certainly, with the keepers of herds, away from towns or villages, in solitude and contemplation. In that respect, as well as in others, John is like Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa. According to the Gospels, ‘the deserts’ included also the country near Jordan—beyond, that is, east of, the river—where John began his ministry, preaching and baptizing (Matthew 3:1, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:2; cf. Matthew 11:7, Luke 7:24; see artt. Bethabara, John the Baptist, Jordan), and the four Gospels apply to that event the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23).

Ecclesiastical tradition has not been content with the indications given in the Gospels which connect John the Baptist’s life and work with the wilderness: it has connected also his birth with it. The place where Zacharias and Elisabeth dwelt being only vaguely named in Luke 1:39, it has been identified by the Christians of the Holy Land and the pilgrims, since the time of the Crusades, with a village situated about 4 miles west from Jerusalem; the Arabs call it ‘Ain-Karim, hut it is known in the language of the Churches as ‘St. John in the Desert’ or ‘St. John in the Mountain.’ That place is not in the Wilderness of Judah; its neighbourhood is cultivated and fertile, at least in the sense in which one can use that word when speaking of Judaea. Even if we should suppose that such was the birthplace of John, it would be unjustified to consider it as being ‘in the wilderness’ (cf. ZDPV [Note: DPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins.] xxii. pp. 81–93).

It is also in the wilderness that the Gospel narratives place the scene of the Temptation of our Lord (Matthew 4:1, Mark 1:12, Luke 4:1). Since the time of the Crusades, ecclesiastical tradition has contrived to localize that event in a particular, well-defined spot, and has chosen for it the wild and desolate mountain which arises almost vertically above the Fountain of Elisha, west from the oasis of Jericho. A Greek convent, continuation of a very old laura, which was, if not founded, at least developed by Elpidins (ZDPV [Note: DPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins.] iii. p. 13), is suspended on the side of that mountain, which has received the name of Mount of the Quarantania (Jebel Karantul), on account of Jesus fasting 40 days. It is, of course, equally impossible to prove or to disprove that this, place is the one mentioned in the narratives of the Temptation.

Galilee, and particularly the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret, was at the time of our Lord relatively well peopled: this is proved by the Gospels, and still more explicitly by the testimony of Josephus. There were, however, spaces of land without human habitations, and probably left to the shepherds and their cattle. According to the narratives of the Gospels, several scenes of the Galilaean ministry of Jesus, and some of His teachings, were connected with places of that sort, designated now as ‘a desert’ or ‘a wilderness’ (ἔρημος or ἐρημία), now as ‘a desert place’ (ἔρημος τόπος). We have to mention here (a) the multiplication of loaves (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, Matthew 15:32-38, Mark 8:1-10); (b) Jesus withdrawing for prayer (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16), or to avoid the crowd (Mark 1:45, Luke 4:42, John 11:54); (c) the demoniac of Gadara (Luke 8:29); (d) the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), where the 99 sheep remain ‘in the wilderness,’ whereas the shepherd goes after that which is lost until he finds it.

Literature.—PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1871, pp. 3–80; E. H. Palmer, The Desert of the Exodus , 2 vols., 1871; Furrer, art. ‘Wüste’ in Schenkel, Bib. Lex. v. pp. 680–685; G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] , pp. 312–317; Buhl, GAP [Note: AP Geographic des alten Palästina.] , pp. 96–99; Lagrange in RB [Note: Revue Biblique.] , 1896, pp. 618–643, 1897, pp. 107–130, 605–625, 1900, pp. 63–86; B. Baentsch, Die Wüste, ihre Namen und ihre bildliche Anwendung in den Alttest. Schriften, 1883; Pierre Loti, Le Désert 6, 1895 [descriptive], and other [more scientific] books of travels in the Sinai-Peninsula; Bönhoff,’ Die Wanderung Israels in der Wüste’ in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1907, pp. 159–217.

Lucien Gautier.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Wilderness (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​w/wilderness-2.html. 1906-1918.