Desert and wilderness

Place and association

The term ‘wilderness’ describes a region of uncultivated, untamed land, associated with lack of human habitation and desolation. Deserts tend to be hot, dry and infertile (such as the Sinai Desert) or semi-arid (such as the Judaean Desert). 
Judaean hills, image available through Creative CommonsSuch places are literal and symbolic locations in the Bible, as well as being used metaphorically to represent a state of the mind and soul. The desert or wilderness is often a place where:
  • The chaos and threat of the terrain and the wildlife are contrasted with the sovereignty and deliverance of God
  • Desolation leads to transformation, exile to restoration, demonstrating God’s faithfulness
  • Trial and/or temptation is experienced and overcome through dependence on God
  • Separation from the world encourages holiness and encounter with God, perhaps in preparation for a task or calling.

Desert and wilderness in the Old Testament

The Exodus

Four of the first five books of the Old Testament describe the delivery of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt (see Slavery), and the forty years spent wandering in the wilderness in anticipation of the Promised Land. The story is foundational to Jewish identity and faith (see Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners). Parallels and references to the wilderness years can be found throughout the rest of the Bible.
For the wandering Israelites, the wilderness was a place of testing, as they travelled towards their Promised Land Exodus 3:8. Their rebellion and complaint (see Numbers 14:2-3) meant that the Israelites remained in the wilderness for forty years.
However, wandering in the desert was also an example of God’s provision of the Hebrews’ material needs (for example Exodus 15:22-27; Exodus 16:1-5; Exodus 17:1-6). It was associated with God making his presence and faithfulness clear, confirming his covenant with his people Exodus 24:3-4; Exodus 34:27-8 and promising to dwell among them Exodus 25:8.

Individuals in the desert

After Jezebel vowed to kill the prophet Elijah he escaped into the wilderness 1 Kings 19: 1-8. Although fearful and despondent, he experienced the desert as a place of provision, healing and encounter with God. 
David, the man later to be Israel’s greatest king, spent many of his formative years in the desert, on the run from the rage of King Saul and having to negotiate with the surrounding nations for his wellbeing 1 Samuel 27: 1-7

Psalms and poetry about desert and wilderness

Wilderness and desert imagery is frequently used in the Psalms and other Old Testament poetry. Psalm 107:33-37 speaks of God’s power to make the earth parched or fruitful as he chooses, according to his justice and/or compassion:
He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield. 
                                                                   Psalm 107:33-37 ESVUK      
In Psalm 63:1, a desert scene is used as a metaphor for the inner anguish of the psalmist, who longs for God as a thirsty man longs for water:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 
                                                                             Psalm 63:1 ESVUK     
The image of deserts being turned into fertile places is a frequent motif in the Bible (for example, Isaiah 35:1, Isaiah 35:6-7). As a development of this idea, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of an arid valley covered in dry bones which were restored to living beings again, an image of the revival of the nation by God’s Holy Spirit (see Ezekiel 37:1-6, Ezekiel 37:14).

Desert and wilderness in the New Testament

The temptation of Jesus

Temptation of JesusBefore he began his public ministry Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11). It was a place for preparation, self-denial (including a forty day fast) and intense trial. Jesus was challenged to resist the temptations of the devil and after he stood firm, was ministered to by angels before he returned to Galilee.

John the Baptist

Jesus’ cousin, the prophet John the Baptist led an unconventional existence in the desert, wearing animal skins and eating locusts and wild honey. Many came out to hear him preach his message of repentance and to be baptised by him in the River Jordan (see Mark 1:2-8). His preaching about Jesus was seen to fulfil a prophecy from Isaiah:
A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’      Isaiah 40:3 ESVUK     

Desert and wilderness in literature

Traditional texts

  • The hero of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) experienced need, trial and provision on his desert island, but found it a place of reflection, self-discovery, and encounter with God
  • In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the grotesque monster, who was rejected by those he encountered, responded by choosing ‘The desert mountains and dreary glaciers’ as his refuge
  • T S Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922) draws on wilderness imagery as a way of invoking a sense of bleakness and despair. 

Modern allusions

  • A wilderness journey is central to the plot of The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Ursula K. Le Guin’s influential feminist science fiction novel 
  • The contemporary poet Michael Symmons Roberts explores the theme of desert and wilderness in Drysalter (2013). He juxtaposes desert motifs with what’s familiar, as though to highlight humankind’s lack of control in a world it believes it has ‘tamed’ (e.g. Desert Hermits and In Case of Apocalypse). In other places (e.g. The Road Retaken) the wilderness is a place of longed-for escape from the complexity and discord of modern life.

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