If you have ever seen pictures or movies set in the desert they are usually dry, hot and barren landscapes. My mental image of the desert come from the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia; lots of camels walking up and down hills of sand. In Australia we have lots of stories related to the harsh desert and wilderness areas of inland Australia. In the early explorers period of European settlement it seems that explorers died in the outback due to the heat and lack of water in the desert. Perhaps like me you have an image of the desert as a harsh and dry place.
The desert areas in Israel vary in their geography. Many areas that we might think of as desert are called wilderness areas because almost everywhere in the middle east is dry. In the bible, the desert or wilderness might just refer to areas outside the city. For example some translations say that Jesus withdrew to the wilderness, others say he withdrew to the desert.
Rather than debate the geographical definition of a desert. I want to look at the biblical significance of the desert or the wilderness. There are three key insights that I want to share with you from my recent visit to the wilderness or desert in Israel.
- The desert as an image of simplicity – when a person or group is in the desert within the biblical narrative it is an image of simplicity to life. In the desert people would live in tents so there isn’t the complexity of buildings as there is in the city. In biblical times the desert was a simple working life rather than the complexity of the working farming communities. In the desert the food choices are much more limited, for example during the biblical Exodus the people of Israel complain to Moses about the choice of meat they had available to them in Eygpt compared to the basic food in the desert.
The desert can be a place of danger even death if people don’t know how to find food and water. There were people groups in the bible that preferred the desert nomadic lifestyle. Today in Israel there are a lot more options for living in desert areas but it still represents a much more basic lifestyle than that of the city.
- The desert as a quiet place to hear from God – the complexity of noise in the city can sometimes drown out the voice of God. In the bible God often calls people out into the desert in order to speak to them. Abraham lived in the desert and heard from God about his future as the father to a great nation. Elijah headed out into the desert to hide from his enemies but it was here in the desert that God spoke to Elijah and strengthened him (read 1 Kings 18-19). Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness or the desert to spend time with his Father in prayer. The lack of distractions in the desert makes it easier to listen to God.
- The desert is the place of preparation for a future mission – the book of Exodus and Numbers the people of God were being formed into a nation as they wandered through the desert. In the book of 1 Samuel David was being formed for Kingship as he ran from Saul through the desert. In the gospels Jesus was preparing to begin his earthly ministry during his 40 days in the desert. And Jesus withdrew to the wilderness before he headed to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission on the Cross.
In many biblical stories the desert is like the modern day retreat centre. Just like the desert in biblical stories the retreat centre is usually a quiet place where people head for some time away to reflect on their life. Most contemporary retreat centres are comfortable without being luxurious; the person going on the retreat doesn’t need the distractions of a 5 star luxury resort. Just like those who were called into the desert, many people spend time in a simple retreat centre to listen to God as they transition into a new period of ministry or mission.
My desert experience was visiting a retreat centre prior to my ordination as a Priest. We were asked to spend three days in silence to listen to God as we prepared for the ordination day. We were given a small room with a basic desk so that we could write in our journal. To add to the wilderness experience the retreat centre was off the mobile phone coverage area so we couldn’t check Facebook or email.
The retreat centre is a special place not because of the place but because of the transition that takes place. Just like the desert in biblical times, the transition that God takes people through is what is important. We might not need to go into the desert ourselves but we do need a simple place that we can go to hear God. Where is your desert place?
The desert was an important image in the bible because it was an image of seeking out God. At times in the bible the desert is just a physical landscape that people travel through, not every reference to the desert is a reflection of the thoughts listed above. Yet if we open our minds to the idea that the desert is the biblical equivalent of our retreat centre then perhaps we will gain new insight into the biblical text.
Please leave a comment about your thoughts on the desert in Biblical narrative.
Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, markoffaith, markoffaith.net Biblical Landscapes