Dedicated to my father, a missionary in the wilderness.
SODOM & GOMORRAH: The theological category of the wilderness is often synonymous with punishment. This most likely arises from God’s banishment of Israel in the wilderness for forty years after they committed idolatry.
The wilderness itself is a neutral concept. In Hebrew the word is midbawr and it comes from a root word relating to speach. It is either speach to arrange and command, or speech to destroy. Midbawr also means “a pasture where cattle are driven” and is only by implication a desert. In Greek it is eremia and simply means “solitude.” We have three potential meanings for wilderness as it appears in scripture. These cannot be accidental meanings, nor can we assume that God has overlooked these meanings when selecting the word. The wilderness is a place where the children are driven forth, alone and separate from the rest of the world, and are subject to a particular form of speech. This speech, of course, is the Word which is always present in the theological pasture. The Word may either arrange and command or it may destroy. Both this arrangement of order and destruction take place within the wilderness and Israel in the wilderness must confront both.
We can examine three primary instances of Israel in the wilderness in scripture to understand how the Christian should view it.
First, there’s the story of Moses. Moses lived to be 120 years old and his life was notable in that it was entirely controlled by God from birth. The Egyptians conspired to kill the male Israelite children because the Israelites had become too numerous. God directed Moses’ mother to place the baby Moses in a basket and set it loose in a crocodile infested river. Not only did Moses survive, but he was cared for by the enemy.
Moses spent the first 40 years of his life in Egypt under Pharoah’s house. In Exodus 2.11-12 Moses reacted to an injustice by committing an injustice. In verse 14, the words of the Hebrew accusing Moses trigger the revenge from Pharoah and in turn drive Moses into the wilderness. Moses must, for a time, be separated from the world because of what he had done. His first time being driven into the wilderness was to atone for the wrong he had done. While there, he did right by the Midianites and found refuge. He lived among them, married one of them, and tended the sheep. While tending the sheep in the desert (midbawr) he came to the mountain of God.
Here, then, is an interesting chain of events. On one hand, Moses, intending to do right did wrong and was driven to the wilderness. Yet in the wilderness he did right (defended the well, tended the sheep) and came to the mountain of God, which was situated in the very furthest part of the wilderness. God speaks most clearly to Israel in the wilderness.
On this mountain, Moses contends with the divine. The speech from the Hebrew seemed arrayed to destroy him, but the speech from the Lord arranges and commands. Yet Moses has difficulty believing that he is worthy; he’s a wanted man, he has no ability, and he doesn’t speak well. After a time, Moses is sent anyway, but he is not ready. The Lord goes to slay Moses’ son who Moses has neglected to circumcise, but his wife performs the deed herself. With the obedience to the commandments, Moses is ready. But instead of sending Moses to Aaron, God has Aaron go into the wilderness to speak with Moses. Only in the wilderness, in that solitude, is it proper to hear the unfiltered words of God. Once the message is given, Aaron and Moses return to Egypt together. Moses is 80 years old when he speaks with Pharaoh and frees the people (Exodus 7.7).
The people are freed. To where? The wilderness. They too must go out of bondage to the wilderness, since the promised land lies on the other side. Moses, having already been in the wilderness, was fit to lead the people through since he had been tried and justified. We might almost be reminded of Plato’s tale of the cave: men are in the cave (the wilderness) where they only see shadows and glimpses of light, while the few rise above and go out in the sunlight to see truth, but are obligated to go back in the cave in order to help others. Moses too must go back in the wilderness to lead others through it. In the end, Moses spends half his life in the wilderness but there was no other way to temper the man who was to lead the people to freedom.
Second, we have the brief encounter of John the Baptist. Matthew 3.1 we find that John preached in the wilderness of Judaea. This was the voice crying in the wilderness spoken of in Isaiah 40.3. The voice, the vessel of speech, cries from the wilderness. John himself was in the wilderness and foretold of the coming of the kingdom of God and called people to restore their souls to a pure state. Only one in the wilderness could have insight into the time when the kingdom would come; God Himself was always away in the wilderness.
John did another thing while in the wilderness: he ate locusts. The locusts were clean per Leviticus 11.22, so they could be eaten as food. Yet the locust has a deeper significance. In Revelation 9.3-11 we find that there is an army of locusts that torment men. Their king is the angel of the bottomless pit, known as “The Destroyer” (the meaning of Abaddon and Apollyon), who is none other than the devil himself. His army is the swarm of locusts that destroy men and make them wish for death, but John consumes them as food.
John was sent into the wilderness. A noble spirit coming in the spirit of Elijah would deserve more than a life of eating bugs and wearing tattered clothes, but the Lord needed a voice to cry from the wilderness and a soul suitable to both hear and carry the message. The Lord also needed someone to baptize, cleanse, and bring to salvation those who were lost in the wilderness – as well as those who went there in search of God.
The third instance of the wilderness we can examine is Christ Himself. In the first chapter of Mark, Christ is baptized by John. “And immediately the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness.” (Mark 1.12) If Christ, who was also named Immanuel, is in the wilderness, what are we to make of it? Moses was driven forth as punishment and had to remain an additional 40 years with the children who were left in the wilderness as punishment. If the wilderness is a penalty for some wrong-doing (Moses’ murder, Israel’s idolatry, whatever wrong John may have done) then what could Christ, who was free of sin, be penalized for? There can be nothing, for the voice in verse 11 even states that God was “well pleased” with Christ.
If the wilderness was not a penalty, it must have been a mission. All we see in Mark is that Christ was tempted of Satan for forty days. In Luke and Matthew we find the dialogue between the two. Satan tempts Christ, the two have a discussion about scripture, and then Christ banishes Satan before being tended to by angels. The struggle with Satan and the revealing of the supernatural only takes place in the solitude of the wilderness. Christ’s mission was to drive Satan away, and the Spirit “drove” Christ to the wilderness to carry out this mission.
The separation of the wilderness makes communion with God possible; there are very few distractions and little intimate contact with others. The quiet and solitude allows one to seek God. For those who have been tested by the wilderness (as Moses) but sent into it regardless, they may be driven by the Spirit to do right or to struggle against evil. It is apparent from scripture that the tools to battle evil are attained in the wilderness; Moses could only confront Pharaoh after conversing with God, John ate locusts while in the wilderness, and Christ confronts Satan in solitude before beginning his ministry among men. It is also apparent that God must send someone; the well of the Midianites would be undefended and the sheep would die, those lost in the wilderness would not be guided to salvation, and devils would be free to tempt weaker passerbys.