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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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An examination of the Hebrew terms rendered "wilderness" or "desert" in the English versions shows that these translations are inadequate and misleading. "Ḥorbah" implies violent destruction; and it is more exactly rendered by "waste places" (Psalms 102:7 [A. V. 6]) or "desolation" (Jeremiah 44:2). The latter term also expresses more accurately the connotation of "yeshimon" and "shammah" or "shemamah," while "tohu" conveys the idea of chaotic confusion (Jeremiah 4:23; Job 26:7). "'Arabah" comes nearer to the meaning of the English "desert" (Isaiah 35:1; Jeremiah 51:43); "ẓiyyah" implies the absence or dearth of water (Psalms 63:2 [A. V. 1]); while the more probable rendering of "sharab" is "mirage" (see Isaiah 35:7, R. V., marginal reading). In so far as the Hebrew terms do not imply artificial desolation and destruction, they connote a stretch of uncultivated land suitable for grazing and occupied by nomads (Numbers 14:33), as is clear both from the etymology of the word "midbar," and from the fact that it and its synonyms usually denote the wilderness of the wandering or Exodus. Such a midbar occasionally existed in the very midst of land under tillage (Genesis 37:22), and again was found at the borders as a transition from cultivated to uncultivated districts (Deuteronomy 4:43; 1 Samuel 17:28).

This "wilderness" is described as without animate occupants (Deuteronomy 32:10), or as a district where no man is found (Jeremiah 2:6; 9:1,11; Job 38:26) and where sowing is not carried on (Jeremiah 2:2). It is an abandoned stretch (Isaiah 27:10; comp. 6:12, 7:16) without protection (Psalms 55:8 [A. V. 7]), and a thirsty land (Ezekiel 19:13; Job 30:3, R. V.) devoid of vegetation (Hosea 2:3; Isaiah 41:19). These terrors play upon the fancy of the people (Isaiah 30:6; comp. "Z. D. P. V." 3:114 et seq.). Some parts of the wilderness are characterized as "ne'ot" (Jeremiah 23:10), or pastures, and others as "'arabot," or dry, barren stretches (2 Samuel 15:28), or as "ḥarerim," or stony table-lands (Jeremiah 12:12, 17:6). The wilderness is the home of wild animals ("ẓiyyim"; Isaiah 13:21, 34:14), including wild asses (Jeremiah 2:24), and thorns grow there (Judges 8:7,16) as well as the heather (Jeremiah 17:6. 48:6).

The term "midbar" is applied to the district of the Hebrews' wanderings between the Exodus and the conquest of Palestine. This region stretched south of Palestine in or on the border of the Negeb; separate parts of it are called the wildernesses of Sin, Shur, Kadesh, and the like. The wilderness between Canaan and the Euphrates is repeatedly mentioned in prophetic writings (Ezekiel 20:35; Isa. 3), and some portions of it are named in Numbers 21:11,13 and Judges 11:22. The wilderness referred to in Joshua 15:61 is that of Judah, which comprised the eastern declivity of the mountainous region toward the Dead Sea. The character of this district illustrates most strikingly the great variety of localities designated in Biblical usage as wildernesses; for in it were pastures (2 Chronicles 26:10), caves (1 Samuel 24:3), and cities (Joshua 15:61), though it contained also barren rocks and precipices. This wilderness of Judah included the wildernesses of Maon (1 Samuel 23:24) and Ziph (ib. 23:14). Connected with it to the north were the wildernesses of Gibeah (Judges 20:42), Michmash (1 Samuel 13:18), Ai (Joshua 8:15), and Beth-aven (ib. 18:12).

E. G. H.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Desert'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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