Desert or wilderness (Testing)
19 Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the
desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their
path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to
take. Neh 9:19
13 and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Mark 1:13
The U.S. federal government defines wilderness as an area that appears to be affected primarily by the forces of nature with the imprint of human influence essentially unnoticeable; with outstanding opportunities for solitude or unconfined recreation; with at least 5000 acres or of sufficient size to make practicable its unimpaired preservation; and may contain features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. The U.S. Wilderness Act speaks of wilderness as areas untrammeled by man." (The Wilderness Handbook, 2001. Fred Krueger, ed.,).
Deserts, or wilderness places, occur quite often within the pages of the Bible, both as places of solitude and conversely as places of punishment and exile.
Robert Leal in his book ‘Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness’ examines this apparent dichotomy and shows that wilderness can be viewed both positively and negatively. It can be a place of testing, revelation, development, rebellion and punishment.
The traditions about the encounter with God in the wilderness have led to a more contemporary theology of creation as a place of wonder, silence, self-awareness, grace and transformation.
St. Columba, who lived in the 6th Century had such a deep love for forests and wilderness that he insisted that his monastery was built without a tree being cut down. He wrote that he was more afraid of the sound of an axe in the forest than the voice of hell itself.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote, "One has to be alone, under the sky, before everything falls into place and one finds his own place in the midst of it all."
So how do relate our faith to the wilderness places? The Hebrew word for wilderness or desert is miDBaR (most Hebrew words are built off of three-letter roots, shown by the capitalization of the root letters DBR of this word). The Hebrew root DBR has a range of meaning mostly connected to "words," "speaking," and "having a conversation."
In Hebrew, it comes from the root dabar, "to lead" (as in lead cattle to pasture). That makes sense in relation to the Bible, as we find so many occasions where God’s people, his prophets and indeed Jesus retreated into the wilderness to draw near to God, to listen and to converse with Him. For forty years the people of Israel experienced the isolation of the wilderness as they made their way to the land promised to them by God. Moses knew that in a place such they would hear their God speaking to them, and wanted nothing more than that they should turn to God and repent. That it took so long for that journey is perhaps a reflection on how difficult mankind finds it to be in that solitary place where God can be heard and where response is an imperative rather than an option.
Where is the wilderness in our own lives? What is our experience of searching out the solitude that the prophets found, and the early saints yearned for? Some have found that wilderness is everywhere around them; the vast spaces, prairies, forests and deserts within which they have made their home and eke out a living. Some have sought out places of retreat from the bustle of life, where they can be at peace, put aside the stresses and strains of the normal day and make that journey to be nearer to their God.
For others, paradoxically, the city in which they live and work has become their wilderness as they discover that within a population of thousands or even millions they are alone – that it is possible even within such a hostile environment to find space, cut out the background noise and clutter and find the place where spiritually they can speak and be spoken to.