The wilderness in Jewish and Christian tradition

By JOHN J. COLLINS
June 27, 2018 18:03
The caves at Qumran

The caves at Qumran. (photo credit: TAMARAH / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

 
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THE MIDBAR, wilderness or desert, looms large in the landscape of Israel and also in its history. The word can refer to a range of phenomena, from lightly inhabited steppeland to true desert, or arid land, which is a place of desolation, not fit for human habitation. Because of its remoteness, however, the wilderness could be the refuge of outlaws and fugitives. Hagar flees to the desert in Genesis 16; her son Ishmael lives there as a bowman. David flees to the desert before Saul, and Elijah flees there from Jezebel. Judas Maccabee and his followers made the wilderness their base of operations against the Seleucid armies. The barren otherness of the wilderness sometimes takes on mythical overtones. It is said to be populated by ostriches and satyrs (Isaiah 13). It is the place where the scapegoat is driven to the demon Azazel on the Day of Atonement in Genesis 16.

The symbolism of the wilderness was also shaped by its role in Israelite history.

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