Wilderness regions form the background for many of the Biblical accounts and are frequently used in figurative or metaphorical statements.
The nation of Israel, making its exodus from Egypt, was guided by God into the wilderness along the Red Sea, causing Pharaoh to assume that they had lost their bearings in that region. (Ex. 13:18-20; 14:1-3) On the other side of the Red Sea, and for the remainder of forty 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; Num. 10:12; 20:1), at times encamping at oases, such as at Elim, with its twelve springs and seventy palm trees (Ex. 15:27), and at Kadesh-barnea.—Num. 13:26; Deut. 2:14.
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 (Gen. 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 (Judg. 1:16; 1 Sam. 23:14, 24; 24:1); and wilderness regions on the E side of the Jordan, merging with the Syro-Arabian Desert. (Num. 21:13; Deut. 1:1; 4:43) Much of the Rift Valley (today called the “Ghor”) through which the Jordan River runs is basically desert land.
HEBREW WORDS USED
The Hebrew term for wilderness (midh·barʹ) apparently has a rather broad application, but in general refers to a sparsely settled, uncultivated land. (Jer. 2:2) Some scholars suggest that midh·barʹ comes from a root word (da·varʹ), meaning “to drive,” and connect it with the driving of flocks out to pasture in the morning and home again at night. The Bible refers to the “pasture grounds of the wilderness” (Ps. 65:12; Jer. 23:10) and to the pasturing of herds and flocks in such regions. (Gen. 36:24; Ex. 3:1; 1 Sam. 17:28) Cisterns (2 Chron. 26:10), houses, and even some cities might be found there.—1 Ki. 2:34; Josh. 15:61, 62; Isa. 42:11.
So, 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 (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, 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.
While often designating simply brush and grass steppe lands, midh·barʹ may also apply to waterless regions that could be termed true deserts. Other Hebrew terms are used to designate such areas more specifically, and these 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].” (Deut. 32:10) Used with the definite article, it refers to specific wilderness areas.—Num. 21:20; 1 Sam. 23:19, 24; see JESHIMON.
ʽAra·vahʹ (likely from ʽa·ravʹ, meaning “to be dried up as with heat”) describes arid and sterile tracts, like those across the Jordan from Jericho. (Num. 22:1) Such desert plains could be the result of forest destruction and lack of proper conservation and cultivation, or be due to 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. 72:9; 107:35.
Even those regions meriting the name “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; Ezek. 19:13.
THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI
As has been shown, the conditions in some of the wilderness regions were quite possibly more favorable in the ancient past than at the present time. Still, 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.” (Deut. 1:19; 8:15) It was a “land of fevers” (Hos. 13:5), a land of pit and deep shadow. (Jer. 2:6) The more barren wilderness regions were either uninhabited (Job 38:26) or places where tent dwellers resided and nomads roamed. (1 Chron. 5:9, 10; Jer. 3:2) Here were brambles and thornbushes (Gen. 21:14, 15; Ex. 3:1, 2; Judg. 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 (1 Ki. 19:4, 5), or a gloomy-looking dwarf juniper (Jer. 48:6), or by the gnarled trunk of a tamarisk with its featherlike foliage of tiny evergreen leaves. (Gen. 21:33) High above, eagles and other birds of prey wheeled around in cloudless skies (Deut. 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. (Lev. 11:30; Ps. 140:3; Isa. 34:15) Mountain goats appeared on rocky crags (1 Sam. 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; Lam. 4:3; Zeph. 2:13, 14) At night, the howling of jackals and wolves was joined by the hooting of owls or the whirring cry of the night-jar, 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 Ezekiel 34:25.
WILDERNESS IN THE CHRISTIAN GREEK SCRIPTURES
Here the Greek term eʹre·mos corresponds generally to the Hebrew midh·barʹ. (Luke 15:4) It describes the wilderness setting of John the Baptist’s preaching (Matt. 3:1), the “deserts” over which pre-Christian men of faith wandered (Heb. 11:38), and the lonely places into which a certain demonized man was driven. (Luke 8:27-29) Jesus, after being baptized, fasted and was tempted by Satan in a wilderness region. (Matt. 4:1; compare Leviticus 16:20-22.) During his ministry, at times Jesus resorted to the wilderness to pray. (Luke 5:16) He assured his disciples, however, that his second presence would not take place in some such lonely wilderness. (Matt. 24:26) The wilderness still had its own special dangers when the apostle Paul made his missionary journeys.—2 Cor. 11:26; compare Acts 21:38.
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.” (Isa. 27:8) 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. (Ezek. 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.—Hos. 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 Ezekiel 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; Joel 3:19; Zeph. 2:9, 10.
By contrast, the restoration of Judah, after the seventy-year exile, would be like converting a wilderness region into an Edenic garden, with fruitful orchards and productive fields, watered by streams and rivers, with reedy plants, leafy trees and blossoming flowers, all making the land appear to rejoice.—Isa. 35:1, 2; 51:3.
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 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 aid in gaining 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 enigmatic 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.’ The Greek Septuagint Version omits the word for “sea” from this text and the consonantal Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah can be interpreted to read “words.” Because of this, some suggest the following translation of Isaiah 21:1: “Words like storm winds sweeping through the Negeb, coming from the desert, from a terrible land.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. V, p. 286) If accepted, such translation might indicate that the “words” of a “hard vision” (vs. 2) against Babylon rushed through the prophet’s mind like desert storm winds across the Negeb.
In the book of Revelation, the wilderness is used in a dual sense: as representing solitude and refuge from attackers in the case of the symbolic woman who gives birth to the royal male child (Rev. 12:6, 14), and as representing the home of wild beasts in the case of the symbolic woman “Babylon the Great,” who rides the seven-headed wild beast.—Rev. 17:3-6, 12-14.