The wilderness in Jewish and Christian tradition

The caves at Qumran (photo credit: TAMARAH / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The caves at Qumran
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.
After the Exodus from Egypt Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness.
The mountain of revelation, Sinai, is also called wilderness, Horeb, in Deuteronomy.
The prophets sometimes evoke the wilderness or desert as the place of Israel’s beginnings. This theme is first found in the eighth century BCE prophet Hosea. On the one hand, the Lord threatens to punish Israel by making her like a desert, stripping away her vines and fig trees. But then he goes on: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
This theme is picked up at the end of the Babylonian Exile by the anonymous prophet whose oracles are preserved in the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55. (This prophet is called Second or Deutero-Isaiah. He lived about 150 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem).
When King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree allowing Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem, Second Isaiah exulted: A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
THIS THEME was taken up again around the turn of the era by groups who anticipated the end of this age and the beginning of a new one. One such group, known to us from the Dead Sea Scrolls, is most probably to be identified with the Essenes, one of the Jewish sects described by the historian Josephus, and also by the Jewish philosopher Philo and the Roman author Pliny, who says that they had a community near Jericho.
This group refers to itself, on occasion, as “the Exile of the Wilderness” or “the penitents of the Wilderness.” They organized their movement in “camps” on the model of Israel in the wilderness. They appear to have thought of themselves as like Israel in the wilderness, on the threshold of a new age. But they also use the wilderness motif in another way. In the Community Rule found at Qumran, we read that a special group of three priests and twelve men were to be set aside as holy in the midst of the community, and given special training for two years. Then When these become a community in Israel, they shall separate themselves from the dwelling of the men of deceit in order to go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of the Lord, as it is written: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make level in the desert a highway for our God.
The passage goes on to say: “This is the study of the Torah, which he commanded by the hand of Moses.” In light of this addition, some scholars have questioned whether this passage refers to an actual retreat to the wilderness, but most probably “the study of the Torah” is just “to prepare the way of the Lord.” The fact that the citation from Isaiah 40 inserts the word “there” (“to prepare there the way of the Lord”), which is not part of the biblical text, indicates that the wilderness was meant as a real place.
At one time, this passage was thought to be the manifesto for the founding of a community at Qumran, where the Scrolls were discovered. That may be, but it is now apparent that the whole sectarian group did not move to the wilderness. Those who were to go to the wilderness were a special group, set aside as holy. Their reason for moving to the wilderness was to be free from exposure to their sinful compatriots, and to maintain a higher degree of purity than was possible elsewhere. We find a similar idealization of the desert as a place conducive to holiness in Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher who lived in the early first century CE.
Isaiah 40 is also cited in the New Testament. In this case, the biblical text is construed differently: A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. (Luke 3:4; cf. Mark 1:3; Matt 3:3).
In this case, the wilderness is the location of the prophetic voice, not of the preparation of the way. The Gospels identify the voice as that of John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of forgiveness of sin and attracted many, including Jesus. It is sometimes suggested that John might have been a member of the community that lived at Qumran, also near the Jordan. This is highly unlikely. The people at Qumran were obsessed with purity, and lived a highly structured life. They practiced regular ritual washing, but not the kind of baptism by immersion preached by John, which was a ritual to wash away sin before the coming judgment. John was a rather wild individual, like the prophets of old, not at all suited to the regimented life of Qumran.
Jesus, who was baptized by John, had little patience with purity regulations, saying that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out (Mark 7). Jesus is said to have spent some time in the wilderness, as spiritual preparation for his ministry, but his objectives were very different from what we find in the Scrolls.
Centuries later, Christian monks would establish monasteries in the desert, seeking to get away from an impure world and meditate in peace. The Jewish community at Qumran seems to have anticipated the monastic movement by a few centuries, but it has not been possible to establish any historical links between the Jews who went to the desert and the Christians who came later.  John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament at Yale University