Hebrew midbār, “wilderness, desert,” originally meant “place of herding.” Since many wilderness areas of Palestine were sparsely vegetated, in contrast to the barren Syro‐Arabian desert, nomads could traverse them with asses and flocks (1 Sam. 17.28; 25.4, 21; Isa. 27.10; Jer. 23.10; Joel 2.22; Ps. 65.12). Oases sustained concentrated settlements of pastoralists and agriculturalists.

The wilderness has mostly negative associations in the Bible. It is a bad place (Num. 20.5; Prov. 21.19) of hunger, thirst, and deprivation (Ps. 107.4–5; Job 30.3); it is unsettled (Jer. 2.6; Job 38.26), nonarable (Jer. 2.2), windswept (Isa. 21.1; Hos. 13.15; Job 1.19), haunted by noxious beasts and demons (Deut. 8.15; Isa. 13.21; 34.14), and echoing with frightful noises (Deut. 32.10). It is the domain of Cain (Gen. 4.12–16), Ishmael (Gen. 16.12; 21.20–21; 25.6, 18), Esau (Gen. 27.39–40), and raiders (Luke 10.30; Acts 21.38) such as the Arabs (Jer. 3.2), Midianites (Judg. 6–8), and Amalekites (Exod. 17.8–16; Deut. 25.17–19; Judg. 6.3, 33; 7.12; 10.12; 1 Sam. 15). Apart from nomads and the lawless, only the mad inhabit the wilderness (Luke 8.29), or those with no other recourse (Gen. 16.6–14; Exod. 2.15; 1 Sam. 22.2; 1 Kings 19; Jer. 9.1; 48.6; Ps. 55.7–8; Rev. 12.6). The wilderness is figuratively dark (Jer. 2.6, 31), recalling the primordial state of the universe (cf. Deut. 32.10). To punish a people God may “uncreate” a country, converting arable land to wilderness (Isa. 6.11–12; 14.17; 34; Jer. 9.11; 22.6; 50.39–40; 51.43; Ezek. 6.6; Hos. 2.3, 6; Joel 2.3; Zeph. 2.13; Ps. 107.33–34).

On the other hand, there is nostalgia for aspects of the seminomadic lifestyle of the ancestral and Exodus periods. The Rechabites continue to build no houses, plant no fields, and live in tents (Jer. 35.6–7). The tent in particular remains a powerful symbol: God's proper dwelling is a tent (Exod. 26; 33.7–11; 36; 40.34–38; Josh. 18.1; 2 Sam. 6.17; 7.2, 6; cf. Pss. 27.5; 74.7; 1 Chron. 6.32; 9.23); the cry of secession from the Davidic kingdom is “To your tents, O Israel” (2 Sam. 20.1; 1 Kings 12.16), and Hosea predicts a return to tents (Hos. 12.9). Pastoralism, too, has positive associations. Both God (Isa. 40.11; Jer. 23.1, 3; Ezek. 34; Pss. 23; 78.52; Rev. 7.17) and the king (1 Sam. 16.11–13; 17.34–37; 2 Sam. 7.8; Jer. 23.2, 4; Ezek. 34; 37.24; Ps. 78.70–72) are shepherds, a common royal epithet in antiquity. As divine king, Jesus, too, is shepherd (John 10.1–30; Heb. 13.20).

The wilderness is also a place for spiritual renewal. Hagar (Gen. 16.7; 21.19), Moses (Exod. 3.1–4.17), and Elijah (1 Kings 19) flee there and meet God. Jesus similarly seeks solitude in the desert (Matt. 4.1 par.; Mark 1.35 par.; Luke 5.16; John 11.54). The wilderness is above all associated with the wanderings of Israel narrated in Exodus‐Deuteronomy. Most texts recall this as a time of tension between God and his people (Exod. 15.22–26; 16; 32; Lev. 10; Num. 11–14; 16–17; 20.1–13; 21.4–9, Deut. 1.19–46; 6.16; 9.7–10.11; Jer. 7.24–26; Ezek. 20; Pss. 78; 106; Neh. 9; Acts 7.39–43; 1 Cor. 10.5–12; Heb. 3–4), but Jeremiah 2.2–3 and Hosea 2.15 idealize it as a time of piety. Some sources maintain that God simply found Israel in the desert and brought them to the land (Deut. 32.10; Ezek. 16; Hos. 9.10), apparently ignoring the Exodus proper. It was in this wilderness, at Mount Sinai/Horeb, that God entered into a covenant with Israel (Exod. 19.1 – Num. 10.10), a covenant reaffirmed on the wilderness borders of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy).

Nostalgia for desert life and the negative associations of the wilderness are, ironically, compatible. Israel is forced to rely upon God in the most inhospitable of climates, and God shows his power to sustain them (Exod. 16; 17.1–7; Num. 11; Deut. 8.3–4, 15–16; 29.5–6; Ps. 78.19–20, 23–29; 1 Cor. 10.3–4); just as Jesus feeds the multitudes in the desert (Mark 6.30–44; 8:1–10; par.). The desert is also God's crucible, in which he tests Israel (Exod. 15.25–26; Deut. 8.2–3, 5, 16; 33.8) and eliminates the unwanted.

Some prophets believe that Israel must return to the desert for renewal and purification (Hos. 2.14–15; 12.9; Isa. 35.3–4, 8–10; 40.3–4, 41.17; 43.19–20; 48.21; 49.9–12; Jer. 31.2–3, 9; Ezek. 20.35; 34.25). Second Isaiah, encouraging Babylonian Jews to cross the desert and rebuild Judah (Isa. 49.8; 51.3), envisions the desert negated, turned into a paradise (Isa. 35.1–2, 6–7; 41.18–19; cf. Isa. 32.15; Ps. 107.35).

The Qumran community conceived of itself as fulfilling the call of Isaiah 40.3 (1QS 8.13–14; 9.19–20), to make a way in the desert in preparation for a national rebirth. John the Baptist was viewed in the same light (Matt. 3.3 par.; John 1.23). The tradition of desert monasteries continues to this day.

William H. Propp