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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Desert, Wilderness

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The ideas suggested to our minds by the words ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ differ to a considerable extent from those conveyed to an Oriental by the biblical terms so translated. When we think of a desert we tend to imagine a bare sandy waste, without any vegetation or water, such as the Desert of the Sahara in N. Africa. The ‘desert’ of the Bible is rather a place without human habitations, devoid of cities or towns, but by no means devoid of vegetation, at least for a considerable portion of the year. Properly speaking, the desert was the place to which the cattle were driven (Heb. מִדְבְּר from דָּבַר ‘to drive’), an uncultivated region where pasturage, however scanty, was to be found. Joel, for instance, speaks of the fire having devoured the pastures of the wilderness (Joel 1:20), and of the locusts leaving a desolate wilderness behind them (Joel 2:3). It was in the wilderness that the shepherds tended their flocks, and other forms of life were also to be found there. Thus, e.g., pelicans (Psalms 102:6), wild asses (Jeremiah 2:24), ostriches (Lamentations 4:3), jackals (Malachi 1:3) had their home in the desert. As the pasture to be found in the wilderness was scanty and insufficient to support a flock of sheep for any length of time, the shepherds had to move from place to place in order to obtain the necessary food for their flocks. The desert was thus the special home of nomadic or wandering tribes, although the name ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ was applied to the uncultivated tracts of land beyond the bounds of the cultivated area near the towns or villages. Some of the deserts mentioned in Scripture are small, and correspond to the English ‘common’ or uncultivated pasture ground near a village on which any of the inhabitants could graze their cattle. Thus we read of the Wilderness of Gibeon (2 Samuel 2:24), of Tekoa (2 Chronicles 20:20), of Damascus (1 Kings 19:15). On the other hand, many of the wildernesses referred to in the Bible are simply parts of larger deserts. Some of these larger tracts of uncultivated pasture land are, e.g., the Wilderness of Judah (Judges 1:16), of Moab (Deuteronomy 2:8), of Edom (2 Kings 3:8). The Wilderness of Judah included the Wilderness of Ziph, of Tekoa, of Engedi.

The best-known desert of the Bible is the Wilderness of Sinai, where the tribes of Israel wandered before settling in Canaan. God’s care for the people in those days of wandering is repeatedly referred to by prophets and psalmists (e.g. Hosea 13:5, Jeremiah 2:6, Amos 2:10, Psalms 78:52; Psalms 107:4; Psalms 136:16). In the same way the sin and unbelief of the people in the wilderness are mentioned (e.g. Psalms 78:40; Psalms 106:14), while on the other hand several of the prophets seem to look on the time of the sojourn in the wilderness as the ideal period in the story of Israel’s relation to God (e.g. Jeremiah 2:2, Amos 5:25).

In the apostolic writings we have several references to ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert.’ The terms employed are ἐρημία and ἔρημος, the latter used either as a noun or adjective with τόπος or χώρα or some similar word understood. In the life of our Lord the desert holds an important place. It is the scene of the Temptation, of the feeding of the 5000, of midnight prayer and rest from labour. In the life of St. Paul we have a reference to his sojourn in Arabia (Galatians 1:17) after his conversion, and undoubtedly we are to understand that the Apostle had retired to the desert for meditation. The evangelist Philip is instructed by the Spirit to go to meet the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and the statement follows, ‘which is desert’ (Acts 8:26). If this refers to the road which passed through the desert, there is no difficulty; but the natural application of the words is to Gaza itself, which in the time of Philip was a prosperous town. G. A. Smith (Historical Geography of the Holy Land (G. A. Smith) 4, 1897, p. 186f.) supposes that the reference is to Old Gaza, past which the road ran; but the more likely explanation is that the sentence is a later marginal gloss inserted after Gaza had passed away, and that it at length crept into the text (cf. Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iv. 918b). In the Epistle to the Hebrews reference is made to the persecuted followers of Christ ‘who wandered in deserts and mountains’ (11:38). Probably this refers to the Jewish Christians of the Holy Land during the great war with Rome and after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. The apostolic writings also contain repeated allusions to the wilderness of Israel’s wanderings. In the speeches of St. Stephen and St. Paul, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, we find the story of the desert sojourn, in the accounts of the history of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind (Acts 7:36; Acts 7:38; Acts 7:42; Acts 7:44; Acts 13:18). St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:5 refers to the temptation, sin, and punishment of the people in the wilderness as a warning to Christian believers against giving way to temptation. A similar use of the temptation in the wilderness is made in Hebrews 3:8; Hebrews 3:17.

In Revelation 12:1; Revelation 12:14 ‘the woman clothed with the sun’ has a place prepared for her in the wilderness, whither she flees from before the dragon, while in 17:3 the seer is carried to the wilderness to see the ‘woman sitting upon a scarlet-coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy.’ The thought behind the former reference, of the wilderness as a place of refuge for the woman, may be taken from the history of the Jews who fled from Pharaoh to the wilderness, but there may be no more than the general idea of the wilderness as a place of refuge and concealment, so amply illustrated in the life of David. The idea in the latter instance may be connected with the Jewish conception of the desert as the home of demons or evil spirits (cf. article Demon).

W. F. Boyd.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Desert, Wilderness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/d/desert-wilderness.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, September 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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