Desert

DESERT. A rendering of a number of Hebrew and Greek words. 1. Hebrew midbār and Greek erēmos, “a wilderness,” yet capable of pasturing flocks (Gen.16.7; Gen.21.20; 1Sam.17.28; Matt.3.1; Mark.1.13).

2. Hebrew ‘ărāvâh, “an arid region.” When used with the definite article, it denotes the plain of the Jordan and Dead Sea (2Sam.2.29; Ezek.47.8).

3. Hebrew yeshîmôn, “a waste.” With the definite article, it is rendered as a proper name, Jeshimon (Num.21.20).

4. Hebrew hārbâh, “waste, desolate place” (Isa.48.21; Ezek.13.4). It must not be thought that the deserts known to the Israelites were merely wastes of sand, like the Sahara. They were mostly latently fertile lands, needing only rain to make them fruitful.


Camels grazing on sparse vegetation in the Negev Desert.

Geography and culture.

The “desert” or the “wilderness” is found mentioned in numerous contexts throughout the Bible. In most places it is a mild desert receiving some rain during the winter season of the year. Rain falls at intervals from November to April causing flooding at certain places because of the treeless soil, while the other six months it is extremely dry because of the khamsin or desert winds. The Negev in the S is the dryest area with only one to two inches of rain per year. Galilee, to the N, is at the other extreme as far as rainfall is concerned, for it receives as much as forty inches of rainfall per year. The reason for such a contrast in climate is the location of Pal. between the Mediterranean Sea and the harsh desert areas to the E. The winds from each direction are “in conflict” thus causing such extremes in climate.

The desert has had a far greater influence on the life and culture of Pal. than has the Sea. This is because of the lack of good natural harbors along the Palestinian coast, whereas to the N along the Syro-Phoenician (Lebanon) coast there are a number of excellent natural harbors. Solomon had to depend upon the Phoenicians to carry out his interests on the sea, for his own people and land were not accustomed to that way of life. There was continuous hostility between the inhabitants of the desert and those of the more fertile areas. The lure of the planted crops was more than a hungry bedouin tribe could withstand. In other periods of time when peace was negotiated, active trade took place over the desert routes bringing many goods from the S and E to Pal. The open avenue of trade or conflict with the desert kept Pal. Sem. Down through the centuries the Sem. nomads would either settle in Pal., or at least they would influence the culture to the extent that it remained Sem. in spite of the Mediterranean contacts. (Aharoni, LOB, p. 10.)

Biblical words.

There are a number of words in the Bible which are tr. as “desert” or “wilderness.” The most common and most inclusive word in the OT is midbar. The midbar not only includes the barren deserts of sand and rock, but also the steppe lands which can be classified as semidesert. These would be used for the grazing of sheep and goats at certain periods of the year. Sīyyah and y&supə;shimōn tend to be a little more narrow in meaning referring to very dry and waterless areas. Horbah seems to carry the added meaning of wasteland—i.e. an area not only dry, but even if one could get water to it, it would prob. be useless.

The other two Heb. words which have been tr. in some VSS as “desert” or “wilderness” are better tr. as proper names. They are the words עֲרָבָה, H6858, and נֶ֫גֶב, H5582, and they identify specific desert areas. The ‘Arabah is the barren plain located in the southern part of the Jordan valley, just N of the Dead Sea; S of the Dead Sea the narrow ’Arabah stretches all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba. The Negev is the great southern desert tucked between the Sinai peninsula to the W and the ’Arabah to the E.

The NT does not have quite the variety of Gr. words referring to the desert. Erēmos is used in relationship to the desert, not so much in reference to the desert’s dryness, but more in the sense of a solitary or lonely place. In Mark 6 Jesus and His apostles went to the area around Bethsaida on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This area is called an erēmos or “lonely place,” which even though it was classified as desert had some grassy areas (John 6:10).

Allegorical uses.

The desert is presented both in a positive and in a negative way in its relationship to Israel. At the beginning of the nation’s history, the desert was where God showed His power and concern for Israel (Jer 2 and 3). Hosea also sees God’s love expressed in the desert for His people (Hos 13:5). Deborah sings praise to the God of Sinai and the desert (Judg 5:4, 5), and likewise Habakkuk as he speaks about God’s deliverance of Israel (Hab 3:2-7).

The wilderness, however, also is seen as a place of sin. The golden calf scene took place in the desert (Exod 32:23). Korah’s rebellion took place there (Num 16 and 17). At Shittim many of the Israelites identified with Baal of Peor (Num 25) and suffered the judgment of God.

Bibliography

D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957); Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1967); Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah The Macmillan Bible Atlas (1968); “Wilderness” Encyclopedia Judaica (1971), vol. 16, 511-513; E. Orni and E. Efrat, Geography of Israel, 3rd ed. (1971).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


The desert as known to the Israelites was not a waste of sand, as those are apt to imagine who have in mind the pictures of the Sahara. Great expanses of sand, it is true, are found in Arabia, but the nearest one, an-Nufud, was several days’ journey distant from the farthest southeast reached by the Israelites in their wanderings. Most of the desert of Sinai and of Palestine is land that needs only water to make it fruitful. East of the Jordan, the line between "the desert" and "the sown" lies about along the line of the Chijaz railway. To the West there is barely enough water to support the crops of wheat; to the East there is too little. Near the line of demarcation, the yield of wheat depends strictly upon the rainfall. A few inches more or less of rain in the year determines whether the grain can reach maturity or not. The latent fertility of the desert lands is demonstrated by the season of scant rains, when they become carpeted with herbage and flowers. It is marvelous, too, how the camels, sheep and goats, even in the dry season, will find something to crop where the traveler sees nothing but absolute barrenness. The long wandering of the Israelites in "the desert" was made possible by the existence of food for their flocks and herds. Compare Ps 65:11,12: "Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; And thy paths drop fatness. They drop upon the pastures of the Wilderness. And the hills are girded with joy"; and also Joe 2:22: "The pastures of the wilderness do spring."


Aside from the towns and fields, practically all the land was midhbar or "desert," for this term included mountain, plain and valley. The terms, "desert of En-gedi," "desert of Maon," etc., do not indicate circumscribed areas, but are applied in a general way to the lands about these places. To obtain water, the shepherds with their flocks traverse long distances to the wells, springs or streams, usually arranging to reach the water about the middle of the day and rest about it for an hour or so, taking shelter from the sun in the shadows of the rocks, perhaps under some overhanging ledge.