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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Wilderness of the Wandering of the Children of Israel.

This is a convenient popular designation of the wide region in which the people were led by the divine guidance under Moses, for forty years, from Egypt to Canaan. It was here, amid nature's grandest and wildest architecture, wrapped in nature's profoundest silence and solitude, far removed from the din and distraction of the world of life and action, that the people of Israel met with their God, and witnessed manifestations of his glory and majesty and power such as mortals never witnessed before, and never can witness again. There, as Stainley says, "they were brought into contact with a desolation which was forcibly contrasted with the green valley of the Nile. They were enclosed within a sanctuary of temples and pyramids not made With hands the more awful from its total dissimilarity to anything which they or their fathers could have remembered in Egypt or Palestine. They were wrapped in a silence which gave full effect to the morning and the evening shout with which the encampment rose and pitched, and still more to the thunders, and the voice exceeding loud on the top of Horeb" (Sin.and Pal. page 20). The appropriateness of these natural features to the scenes recorded in the sacred narrative cannot safely be overlooked by the modern critic and commentator. They tend to demonstrate the perfect consistency of Bible history in its minutest details. In our treatment of it here we give in detail its geographical character and productions. (See EXODE).

I. General Configuration and Features.

1. Principal Divisions. The country embraced in the "Wilderness of Wandering" extended from the borders of Egypt and the Mediterranean on the west, to the plateau of Arabia on the east. How much of the latter it included cannot be determined, because the eastern boundary of Edom is indefinite; and even were it minutely definied, it would be impossible to ascertain how close to or how far from it the Israelites travelled. There can be little doubt that their march was never conducted, like that of a modern army, in one dense column. It bore a far closer resemblance to the migration of an Arab tribe, whose flocks, herds, shepherds, and guards, with their families, spread over the country for many miles. Travellers in this region often pass through a moving tribe whose outer extremities are twenty miles apart. The southern limits of the wilderness were marked by the Red Sea and its gulfs; and time northern by Canaan, Moab, and Bashan.

This vast tract is divided by the Gulf of Akabah, and the deep valley of the Arabah, into two great sections. The western section is triangular in form, the base being marked by the Mediterranean coast and the hills of Judah, and the apex by Ras Mohammed on the extreme south. The physical geography of this region is very remarkable, and, as it formed the chief scene of the wanderings of the Israelites, it must be described with some minuteness. From the shore of the Mediterranean a great plain extends inland. At first it is very low and studded with mounds and ridges of drifting sand. It rises gradually, and the sand gives place to a white, flinty soil, which scantily covers the limestone strata. As the elevation increases, long reaches of rolling table-land, and broad ridges with naked crowns and long gravelly slopes, stretch away far as the eye can see, while shallow, naked wadys, and bare, rocky glens, seam its surface and wind away waterless to the sea. Towards the east the tableland becomes still more uneven. The ridges rise higher and are more rugged, and the valleys are deeper and wilder. Here, however, are some smooth expanses of upland plain, and broad beds of wadys, coated with a light hut rich soil. Springs and wells also become more frequent, and occasionally a streamlet may be traced for a mile or two along its tamarisk-fringed bed. At length the plateau, having attained an altitude of about two thousand feet, breaks down abruptly, in a series of irregular terraces, or wall-like cliffs, to the great valley of the Arababh. Such are the general features of the desert of et-Tih. Its name is remarkable. Et-Tih signifies "The Wandering," and is doubtless derived from the wanderings of the Israelites, the tradition of which has been handed down through a period of three thousand years. It was at the eastern border of the plateau, in the valley of the Arabah, that the camp was pitched so long around the sacred fountain of Kadesh: and it was up the wild passes that lead from the Arabahto the table-land that an infatuated and rebellious people attempted to force their way, against the divine command, into Canaan, when they were driven back with disgrace by the hardy Amalekites (Numbers 14:40-45).

On the north the plateau of et-Tih rises gradually to meet the swelling hills and green vales of Palestine. On the south it, also rises in long, bare, gravelly slopes to Jebel et-Tih, which sweeps rouind like the arc of a bow, and regular as a colossal wall, from Suez to the head of the gulf of Akabah.

The Arabah is a deep, wide valley, running in a straight line from the gulf of Akabah to the Dead Sea. From the latter it rises in a series of terraces, supported by wall-like cliffs, until it attains an elevation of three or four hundred feet above the level of the ocean; then it declines gently to the shore of the gulf of Akabah. The greater portion of it is a bare and barren desert, covered in part with a light, flinty soil, and in part with loose smanid. Low shrubbheries of tamarisk appear here and there, and clumps of camel-thorn are met with, but these are its only products. Fountains are almost unknown in it. That of Kadesh is the only one of any note recorded in ancient or modern times. Along its western side runs a range of bare, rugged limestone hills, from two to three thousand feet in height. The range is deeply furrowed by long, dry ravines, like rents in the rocky strata and these form the only approaches to the plateau of et-Tih. Most of them are impassable to human feet: and as they cut far into the table-land, they effectually bar all passage along its eastern border. The Israelites, therefore, in their approach to Kadesh from Sinai, must have travelled along the Arabah, or else have treaded the interior of the plateau itself.

On the east side of the valley is a mountain-range of a different character. Its southern section is granite, showing the sharp peaks and deep colors of the Sinaitic group. Te granite then gives place to sandstone, whose hues are still more gorgeous. This range formed the country of the Edomites, into which the Israelites never penetrated. They were compelled to turn back from Mount Hor, march down the Arabah, and pass round the southern and eastern sides of Edom. The desert of Arabia thus formed the scene of their last wanderings. It is a vast table-land, extending froum the mountain-range of Edom eastward to the horizon, without tree or shrub, stream or fountain. The surface is either bare rock, or white gravel mixed with flints, or drifting sand. The very Bedawin dread the passage of this "great and terrible wilderness." For days together the daring traveller who ventures to cross it must hasten onward, and should the supply of water which he is obliged to carry with him fail, all hope is gone. Wallin, one of the very few who traversed it, says, "It is a tract the most desolate and sterile I ever saw. Its irregular surface is, instead of vegetation, covered with small stones, which, shining sometimes in a dark swarthy, sometimes in a bright, white color, reflect the rays of the sun in a manner most injurious to the eyes" (Journal of the Roy. Geog. Soc. 24:135).

Mr. Palgrave, who crossed it more recently, almost in the track of Wallin, also gives a frightful account of it (Travels in Arabia, 1:8 sq.). It is far more desolate and dreary and terrible than any part of the region west of the Arabah.

2. The Peninsula of Sinai. The twin gulfs of Suez and Akabah, into which the Red Sea separates, embrace this triangle on its west and east sides respectively. One or other of them is in sight from almost all the summits of the Sinaitic cluster, and from the highest points both branches. The eastern coast of the gulf of Suez is strewn with shells, and with the forests of submarine vegetation, which possibly gave the whole sea its Hebrew appellation of the Sea of Weeds." The "huge trunks" of its "trees of coral may be seen even on the dry shore," while at Tur cabins are formed of madrepores gathered from it, and the debris of con'hylia lie thickly heaped on the beach. Similar "coralline forests" are described (Stanuley, Sinai and Palestine, page 83) as marking the coast of the gulf of Akabah. The northern portion of the whole peninsula is a plateau bounded southwards by the range of et-Tih, which droops across it on the map with a curve somewhat like that of a slack chain, whose points of suspension are, westwards, Suez, and eastward, but farther south, some "sandstone cliffs, which shut off" this region friom the gulf of Akabah. The north- western member of this chain converges with the shore of the gulf of Suez, till the two run nearly parallel. Its eastern member throws off several fragments of long and short ridges towards the gulf of Akabah and the northern plateau called from it et-Tih. The Jebel Dillal (Burckhardt, Dhelel) is the most southerly of the continuations of this eastern member (Seetzen, Beisein, III, 3:413). The greatest elevation in the et-Tih range is attained a little west of the meridian 340, near its most southerly point; it is here 4654 feet above the Mediterranean.

From this point the watershed of the plateau runs obliquely between north and east towards Hebron; westward of which line, and northward from the westerly member of Jebel et-Tih, the whole wady-system is drained by the great Wady el-'Arish, along a gradual slope to the Mediterranean. The shorter and much steeper slupe eastward partly converges into the large ducts of wadys Fikreh and el-Jeib, entering the Dead Sea's south-western angle through the southern wall of the Ghor, and partly finds an outlet nearly parallel, but farther to the south, by the Wady Jerafeh into the Arabah. The great depression of the Dead Sea (1300 feet below the Mediterranean) explains the greater steepness of this eastern slope. In crossing this plateau, Seetzen found that rain and wind had worked depressions in parts of its flat, which contained a few shrubs or isolated bushes. This flat rose here and there in heights steep on one side, composed of white chalk with frequent lumps of flint embedded (ibid. 3:48). The plateau has a central point in the station Khan Nukhl, so named from the date-trees which once adorned its wady, but which have all disappeared.

This point is nearly equidistant from Suez westward, Akabah eastward, el-'Arish northward, and the foot of Jebel Musa southward. It lies half a mile north of the "Haj-route,'" between Suez and Akabah, which traverses "a boundless flat, dreary and desolate" (ibid. page56), and is 1494 feet above the Mediterranean early on the same meridian as the highest point before assigned to et-Tih. On this meridian also lies um-Shimier, farther south, the highest point of the entire peninsula, having an elevation of 9300 feet, or nearly double that of et-Tilf. A little to the west of the same meridian lies el-'Arish, and the southern cape, Ras Mohammed, is situated about 340° 17'. Thus the parallel 31° and the meridian 34° form important axes of the whole region of the peninsula. A full description of the wilderness of et-Tih is given by Robinson (Bibl. Res. 1:177, 178, 199), together with a memorandum of the travellers who explored it previously to himself.

On the eastern edge of the plateau to the north of the et-Tih range, which is raised terrace-wise by a step from the level of the Ghor, rises a singular second, or, reckoning that level itself, a third plateau, superimposed on the general surface of the et-Tih region. These Russegger (Map) distinguishes as three terraces in the chalk ridges. Dr. Kruse, in his Anmerkungen on Seetzen's travels ( Reisen, III, 3L410), remarks that the Jebel et-Tih is the montes nigri, or μέλανες of Ptolemy, in whose view that range descends to the extreme southern point of the peninsula, thus including, of course, the Sinaitic region. This confusion arose from a waist of distinct conception of geographical details. The name seems to have been obtained from the dark, or even black, color which is observable in parts.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Wilderness of the Wandering of the Children of Israel.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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