The Hebrew term for wilderness (midh·barʹ) in general refers to a sparsely settled, uncultivated land. (Jer 2:2) It might include pasture grounds (Ps 65:12; Jer 23:10; Ex 3:1), cisterns (2Ch 26:10), houses, and even some cities (1Ki 2:34; Jos 15:61, 62; Isa 42:11). While often designating simply steppelands with brush and grass, midh·barʹ may also apply to waterless regions that could be termed true deserts. Other Hebrew terms used to designate such areas more specifically are often found in poetic parallel with midh·barʹ.—Ps 78:40; Jer 50:12.
The word yeshi·mohnʹ denotes a natural waste place or desert. (Ps 68:7; Isa 43:19, 20) It is apparently a stronger term than midh·barʹ, indicating greater barrenness, as in the expression the “empty, howling desert [yeshi·monʹ].” (De 32:10) Used with the definite article, it refers to specific wilderness areas.—Nu 21:20; 1Sa 23:19, 24; see JESHIMON.
ʽAra·vahʹ describes arid and sterile tracts, like those across the Jordan from Jericho. (Nu 22:1) Such desert plains could be the result of forest destruction and lack of proper conservation and cultivation, or they could be the result of prolonged drought, these conditions converting productive terrain into unfruitful wastelands. (Isa 33:9; Jer 51:43) With the definite article, the word also denotes a specific part of the Promised Land. (See ARABAH; ARABAH, TORRENT VALLEY OF.) Another term, tsi·yahʹ, describes any “waterless region” and is used in parallel with the previously mentioned words.—Ps 107:35; Isa 35:1.
Even those regions meriting the description “desert” in the Bible were rarely of the sandy type, as certain portions of the Sahara Desert are with their rolling sand dunes. Usually they were relatively treeless, arid or semiarid flatlands, rocky plateaus, or desolate waterless valleys hemmed in by high mountains and barren peaks.—Job 30:3-7; Jer 17:6; Eze 19:13.
The nation of Israel, making their Exodus from Egypt, were guided by God into the wilderness along the Red Sea, causing Pharaoh to assume that they had lost their bearings. (Ex 13:18-20; 14:1-3) On the other side of the Red Sea, and for the remainder of 40 years, Israel passed from one wilderness section to another, including the wilderness regions of Shur, Sin, Sinai, Paran, and Zin (Ex 15:22; 16:1; 19:1; Nu 10:12; 20:1), at times encamping at oases, such as at Elim, with its 12 springs and 70 palm trees (Ex 15:27), and at Kadesh.—Nu 13:26; De 2:14; MAP, Vol. 1, p. 541.
The Promised Land itself, forming part of the so-called Fertile Crescent, lay like a finger of well-cultivated land bounded on one side by the Mediterranean Sea and on two sides by vast wilderness regions—the Syro-Arabian Desert on the E and the Sinai Peninsula on the S. (Ex 23:31) Within the land’s boundaries were smaller wilderness sections, for example, that by Dothan, just S of the Valley of Jezreel, where Joseph was cast into the waterpit by his brothers (Ge 37:17, 22); the Wilderness of Judah, with certain sections around the cities of Ziph, Maon, and En-gedi, wildernesses in which David sought refuge from Saul (Jg 1:16; 1Sa 23:14, 24; 24:1); and wilderness regions on the E side of the Jordan, merging with the Syro-Arabian Desert (Nu 21:13; De 1:1; 4:43). Much of the rift valley through which the Jordan River runs (today called the Ghor) is basically desert land.
While many of the wilderness regions mentioned in the Bible are today completely barren wastelands, there is evidence that some were not always so. Denis Baly, in The Geography of the Bible (1957, p. 91), says that “the nature of the vegetation pattern must have undergone very great changes since Biblical times.” The original well-balanced conditions on which soil, climate, and vegetation formed a stable environment, with little soil erosion, were thrown out of balance by destruction of forests that were never replanted. With shade gone, and roots no longer holding the soil, the burning summer heat and slashing winter rains destroyed it. The earth was baked by the sun, swept by the wind, flaked by extreme temperature variations, and washed away by the rains. Archaeological investigation shows that many areas now completely barren once “included pasture lands, plains, and oases where springs and occasional rains plus careful water conservation made possible the building of villages and the maintaining of important caravan routes.” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by G. Buttrick, 1962, Vol. 1, p. 828) Even today many of such wilderness areas are covered with a heavy green turf in the spring, though by the end of summer they have been burned bare by heat and drought.
Conditions in Wilderness of Wandering. Although the conditions in some of the wilderness regions were quite possibly more favorable in the ancient past than at the present time, Moses could speak of Israel’s trek through Sinai as “through the great and fear-inspiring wilderness, with poisonous serpents and scorpions and with thirsty ground that has no water.” (De 1:19; 8:15; PICTURES, Vol. 1, p. 542) It was a “land of fevers” (Ho 13:5), a land of pit and deep shadow. (Jer 2:6) The more barren wilderness regions either were uninhabited (Job 38:26) or were places where tent dwellers resided and nomads roamed. (1Ch 5:9, 10; Jer 3:2) Here were brambles and thornbushes (Ge 21:14, 15; Ex 3:1, 2; Jg 8:7), thorny lotus trees, and thickets of prickly acacia trees.—Ex 25:10; Job 40:21, 22.
Weary travelers traversing the beaten paths (Jer 12:12) might seek shade under the thin, rodlike branches of a broom tree (1Ki 19:4, 5), or under a gloomy-looking dwarf juniper (Jer 48:6), or by the gnarled trunk of a tamarisk with its featherlike foliage of tiny evergreen leaves (Ge 21:33). High above, eagles and other birds of prey wheeled around in cloudless skies (De 32:10, 11), while horned vipers and arrow snakes slithered over rocks and under bushes, sand lizards scurried about, and big monitor lizards lumbered along on short, powerful legs. (Le 11:30; Ps 140:3; Isa 34:15) Mountain goats appeared on rocky crags (1Sa 24:2); wild asses, zebras, camels, and ostriches foraged on the sparse vegetation; and even pelicans and porcupines might be seen. (Job 24:5; 39:5, 6; Jer 2:24; La 4:3; Zep 2:13, 14) At night, the howling of jackals and wolves was joined by the hooting of owls or the whirring cry of the nightjar, adding to the feeling of wildness and isolation. (Isa 34:11-15; Jer 5:6) Those who slept in a wilderness region generally did so with little sense of security.—Compare Eze 34:25.
With the exception of scattered oases, the Sinai Peninsula is largely a region of sand, hard gravel, and rock. Meager vegetation grows in the wadis. Anciently there may have been a greater amount of rainfall and also more vegetation. However, without God’s care, the Israelites, possibly numbering three million, could never have survived in this barren region. As Moses told them on the Plains of Moab: “Watch out for yourself that you may not forget Jehovah your God . . . who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves; who caused you to walk through the great and fear-inspiring wilderness, with poisonous serpents and scorpions and with thirsty ground that has no water; who brought forth water for you out of the flinty rock; who fed you with manna in the wilderness, which your fathers had not known, in order to humble you and in order to put you to the test so as to do you good in your afterdays.”—De 8:11-16.
Wilderness in the Greek Scriptures. Here the Greek term eʹre·mos corresponds generally to the Hebrew midh·barʹ. (Lu 15:4) It describes the wilderness setting of John the Baptizer’s preaching (Mt 3:1) and the lonely places into which a certain demonized man was driven. (Lu 8:27-29) Jesus, after being baptized, fasted and was tempted by Satan in a wilderness region. (Mt 4:1; compare Le 16:20-22.) During his ministry, at times Jesus retired to the wilderness to pray. (Lu 5:16) He assured his disciples, however, that his presence with kingly power would not be limited to some lonely wilderness but would be made manifest everywhere. (Mt 24:26) The wilderness still had its own special dangers when the apostle Paul made his missionary journeys.—2Co 11:26; compare Ac 21:38.
Figurative Uses. The wilderness regions to the E and SE of Palestine were also the source of fierce hot winds now called siroccos, from the Arabic word (sharquiyyeh) for “east wind.” These winds blowing in from the desert have a tremendous parching effect, absorbing all the moisture in the air and often carrying with them fine, yellowish dust. (Jer 4:11) The siroccos occur principally in the spring and fall, and those in the spring can be very destructive to vegetation and crops. (Eze 17:10) Speaking of Ephraim, as the tribe representing the apostate northern kingdom of Israel, Jehovah foretold that though Ephraim “should show fruitfulness, an east wind . . . will come. From a wilderness it is coming up, and it will dry up his well and drain his spring. That one will pillage the treasure of all desirable articles.” This devastating east wind out of the wilderness symbolized the attack on Israel by Assyria out of the E, plundering and carrying the Israelites captive.—Ho 13:12-16.
Wilderness regions themselves, characteristically thinly inhabited and manifesting a lack of human attention and cultivation, were often used to depict the destructive results of enemy invasion. Because of Judah’s unfaithfulness, the armies of Babylon would make her ‘holy cities a wilderness, Zion a sheer wilderness, Jerusalem a desolate waste’ (Isa 64:10), her orchards and cultivated fields all taking on a wilderness appearance. (Jer 4:26; 9:10-12) Her princely rulers, who had been like majestic cedars of a forest, would be felled. (Jer 22:6, 7; compare Eze 17:1-4, 12, 13.) On the other hand, in retribution for their hatred and opposition to God’s kingdom arrangement, the enemy nations, such as Babylon, Egypt, Edom, and others, were to undergo a similar experience. Particularly Babylon was singled out as due to become a “waterless wilderness and a desert plain,” uninhabited, forgotten in her desolation.—Jer 50:12-16; Joe 3:19; Zep 2:9, 10.
By contrast, the restoration of Judah, after the 70-year exile, would be like converting a wilderness region into an Edenic garden, with fruitful orchards and productive fields watered by streams and rivers, and with reedy plants, leafy trees, and blossoming flowers, all making the land appear to rejoice.—Isa 35:1, 2; 51:3.
Individuals. Similar references to individuals show that such prophecies apply primarily in a spiritual, rather than a literal, way. Thus, the one trusting in men rather than in Jehovah is likened to a solitary tree in a desert plain, with no hope of seeing good. But the one trusting in Jehovah is like “a tree planted by the waters,” fruitful, luxuriant, secure. (Jer 17:5-8) These contrasts also provide the basis for a mental picture of what constituted a wilderness region.
“Wilderness of the sea.” The “wilderness [midh·barʹ] of the sea” at Isaiah 21:1 has been understood by some commentators to be an expression referring to the southern part of ancient Babylonia. When the Euphrates and Tigris rivers annually overflowed their banks, this region became as a ‘wilderness sea.’
In Revelation. In the book of Revelation, the wilderness is used in a dual sense: to represent solitude and refuge from attackers in the case of the symbolic woman who gives birth to the royal male child (Re 12:6, 14), and to represent the home of wild beasts in the case of the symbolic woman “Babylon the Great,” who rides the seven-headed wild beast.—Re 17:3-6, 12-14.