Holy Land areas, particularly in the southern part, with little rainfall and few people. The words for wilderness in the Old Testament come close to our word desert, because they usually mean a rocky, dry wasteland. Desert in the lands of the Bible is usually rocks instead of sand dunes. These have been called “tame” deserts, because they have infrequent rainfall and wells or oases enough to accommodate some nomadic or seminomadic human occupancy. It was the land that neighbored inhabited land to which shepherds could drive their sheep and goats for pasture. David's older brother Eliab taunted him: “With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness?” (1 Samuel 17:28 NRSV). The wilderness could also have the forboding sense of uninhabitable land, as Jeremiah described it: “a land of deserts and pits… a land of drought and deep darkness… a land that no one passes through, where no one dwells” (Jeremiah 2:6 NRSV). It was a fearful place in which to get lost (Psalms 107:4-9).
Geographically, the wilderness lay south, east, and southwest of the inhabited land of Israel in the Negeb, Transjordan, and the Sinai. A particular wilderness, closer to home, lay on the eastern slopes of the Judean mountains in the rain shadow leading down to the Dead Sea. This particular wilderness, sometimes called Jeshimon, became a refuge for David when he fled from Saul, and was the locale of the temptation of Jesus.
Historically, the wilderness was particularly connected with the wandering of the escaping Hebrews after their miraculous escape from Egypt and just prior to the conquest of Transjordan. This was remembered in their retelling of the story as “that great and terrible wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:19;
Deuteronomy 8:15). There was good news and bad news about this period of the nation's existence. The good news was that God had provided manna, quail, and water from the rock. He had led them in the wilderness, and revealed Himself and His covenant laws to them at Sinai/Horeb, the mountain of revelation. The bad news was they had rebelled against the Lord and murmured against Moses again and again in the wilderness. The Book of Numbers is called in the Hebrew Bible, bemidbar, “In the desert.” It tells the tragic story of Kadesh-barnea in the wilderness of Paran and the spy committee who persuaded the people not to attack the Promised Land from the south, so that a whole generation died in the desert (Numbers 13-14). In the Psalms, the worshiping Israelites confessed these ancient sins (Psalms 78:40;
Psalms 106:26), and New Testament preachers used them as a warning to “wilderness Christians” not to make the same mistakes (1 Corinthians 10:1-13;
Hebrews 3:16-19). There were several specific wilderness areas mentioned, such as those of Sin, Shur, Sinai, Paran, and Zin on the way of wilderness wanderings. Some specific locales were connected with David's outlaw years, such as wilderness of En-Gedi, of Judah, of Maon, of Ziph. Jeremiah once yearned for a desert lodge as a place of escape from his rebellious audience (Hebrews 9:2). People in biblical times mostly feared the desert as a place inhabited by beasts of prey, snakes, and scorpions (even demons) to which one might drive out the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10,Leviticus 16:22,Leviticus 16:26;
Isaiah 34:13-14). So it was appropriate as a place for Jesus' temptation (Matthew 4:1-11;
The prophets felt that most of Israel's religious troubles began with the settlement of Canaan and apostasy to Canaanite idolatry, but they also looked forward to a renewed pilgrimage in the wilderness (Hosea 2:14-15;
Hosea 9:10, compare
Jeremiah 31:2-3). There would be a new Exodus after the Babylonian Exile through the north Syrian desert to make the Lord their king and “prepare his way” (Ezekiel 20:30-38;
Isaiah 40:3-5). John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea as the promised prophetic forerunner (Matthew 3:1-3;
John 1:23). Not only did Jesus overcome the tempter in the wilderness, but He fed the four thousand in a desolate place east of Lake Galilee (Mark 8:1-9). See Desert; Paran; Shur, Wilderness of; Sin, Wilderness of; Sinai; Wanderings.
M. Pierce Matheny