Deserts provide harshness, and encounters with God

By | March 5, 2009

More than 30 percent of the earth’s surface is desert, with minimal rainfall and sparse vegetation.

The Judean wilderness (desert) lies east of Jerusalem, which sits in the Judean mountains. Unlike the most common image of a desert as sheets of sand, the desert east of Jerusalem resembles 80 percent of the rest of earth’s deserts; It is a mix of land where dryness and wind has exposed gravel and bedrock outcroppings, and where stony hills are surrounded by erosion plains. Temperatures, untamed by humidity in the air, rise and fall dramatically from day to night.

The Judean wilderness, which descends gradually to the Dead Sea (the lowest spot on earth), contains hill fortresses like Masada (where rebels held out against Rome in the first century), isolated oases of springs like Engeddi (where David and his troops hid out from Saul), caves like Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found in the 1940s), and ancient hilltop monasteries like the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George. To the east, past the Dead Sea, is the land of Jordan. The variety of names ancient Hebrews had for these wildernesses give a sense of the land:

  • * A large chasm runs between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, and the Hebrew word for the land is `Arabah, best translated as “to be arid.” It is dry, flat and hot, with steep cliffs and overhanging ledges similar in some regards to the Wisconsin Dells.
  • * At one time, the Judean wilderness was forested and, even in biblical times, it was a pastureland. The Hebrew word most often used in the Scriptures for desert is midbar, which translates best as “pasture land,” though it does not mean pastures such as we see here in Wisconsin, complete with cows. Rather, it is dry, dusty land, found around the villages of Palestine like Bethlehem even today. It is not valuable land, but sheep and goats can live there. Even today, these animals are herded by Bedouins living in their tents there at least part of the year.
  • Jeshimon is another Hebrew word for the desert lands around Jerusalem. It means “solitary wilderness” and best describes the wasteland on either side of the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan. Mineral salts and limestone are mined there. Cliffs and chasms border it and salt flats, complete with pillars of salt formations, border the Dead Sea. This is the image we get from the Gospel readings of Jesus’ time in the desert as portrayed by Mark.
  • There is another Hebrew word for a desert – charbah – which best translates as “a place of desolation,” as in a place that has been attacked, laid waste and left in ruins. This is the image Jewish exiles took with them after the overthrow of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C., and again after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (and, later, Masada).
  • However, the use of a desert as a Lenten theme is meant to remind us of something which all the deserts of Israel share. For all their harshness, loneliness and emptiness, deserts can lead us to God.
  • Moses found God in a bush burning in the desert pastureland.
  • The Hebrew people were formed into the people of God during their 40 years in the Wilderness of Wandering.
  • John the Baptist lived his mission in the wilderness along the Jordan River.
  • And Jesus began his ministry by spending time alone with God in the wilderness.

Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit. When he completed his mission at Calvary, that same Spirit was poured forth.
“Thus the Spirit is also personally the living water welling up from Christ crucified as its source and welling up in us to eternal life” (CCC 694). Christ’s journey is the model for our Lenten journey to Easter, and the eternal kingdom.

The Book of Isaiah speaks of the kingdom of justice that is to come in terms of a desert: “Until the spirit from on high is poured out on us. Then will the desert become an orchard and the orchard be regarded as a forest” (32:15).

Sources: the U.S. Geological Service; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Catechism of the Catholic Church; Smith’s Bible Dictionary;; and The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.


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