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Wilderness: Profile of the Wilderness, Frequently Described in the Bible


What is Wilderness?:

The general term “wilderness” may sound like it refers only to desolate or desert areas, but in the context of Palestine it has wider connotations. Wilderness isn’t just a type of place, it’s also a concept when it comes to biblical texts. The Hebrew word used for wilderness, midbar, doesn’t just mean “a desolate and deserted place,” it also means “that which is beyond.” Typically, it means “beyond” organized settlements, the control of the government, and traditional civilized norms.

Where is Wilderness?:

Often the “wilderness” was pastoral land with plenty of water and vegetation but no permanent settlements or villages. In fact the Hebrew word originally meant “place of herding.” It could even be a wooded area or have a river — John the Baptist performed baptisms in the wilderness. Almost any place beyond the immediate reach of a city or village could qualify as wilderness. Sometimes the wilderness was perceived as an abode of evil spirits; often, though, it was the abode of bandits insead.

Why is Wilderness important?:

Usually the biblical references to Wilderness are negative: it’s a place of thirst, hunger, deprivation of all sorts, windswept, haunted, etc. At the same time, though, there are signs of romanticization of a nomadic past where one is not hemmed in by the rules of city life.

Quite often prophets wandered in the wilderness to be “tested” or “tempted,” thus making the wilderness a place of spiritual renewal. Surviving in the wilderness demonstrated that one was able to overcome physical and psychological dangers — not just because one was cut off from ready sources of food or water, but also from their community. Whenever the Bible references a wilderness, readers should look beyond the mere physical manifestation and consider the wider ramifications of what it might mean.

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