The wilderness experience has a long history in Judaism as the place of suffering, testing, and preparation. Moses fled into the wilderness to escape death in Egypt (Exodus 2:15). It was in that wilderness he heard the call of God (Exodus 3:1-2). And eventually, Moses led the people into that same wilderness where they lived as nomadic tribes for forty years. It was his wilderness experience that prepared Moses to lead the people out of slavery, and it was their collective wilderness experience that gave them the Law and prepared them to conquer the Promised Land.
THE WILDERNESS AND JUDAISM
The book of Numbers, which is entirely devoted to chronicling this experience, describes the harsh environment of the wilderness and how it led to Israel’s spiritual development as a nation. Rabbi Irwin Kula explains:
The true goal of the Exodus was to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The experience of the seemingly endless journey transformed a people — crushed, frightened, subservient and dependent — into a people with initiative, self-respect, anger at oppression and even militancy. The Israelites at the Jordan are a very different people from the one that left Egypt. They are ready to fight their own battles. They are a community committed to one another and to the covenant that binds them together.
Bamidbar [the book of Numbers] reminds us that wherever we live, there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land, but the way to that land is through the wilderness. 1
The Hebrew post-slavery wilderness experience, then, was particularly formative. But it didn’t end there.
David also fled to the wilderness to escape the murderous threats of Saul (1 Sam. 23:14). He lived in caves, always on the run. He organized a band of fighting men who bought into his vision for Israel. Together they survived in the wilderness under constant threat from the most powerful man in the land. It was the relationships David built in the wilderness that forged friendships he would keep to the end of his life. It was his wilderness experience that forged the character that sustained David throughout his many trials as King of Israel.
It was in the wilderness that God saw Hagar, rescued her, and promised to make her child into a great nation (Gen. 21:8-21). It was in the wilderness that God sent an angel to feed, encourage and replenish a terrified and suicidal Elijah, fleeing the murderous threats of Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-9). And, it was to the wilderness that Jeremiah longed to escape from a lying and violent nation (Jer. 9:2).
The wilderness, then, was a place to escape the pressures of the world, and find God’s reassuring presence, strength, care, and provision (Neh. 9:21; Jer. 9:2; Psalm 55:5-7). It was the place where God prepared his people to do great things. Perhaps the Psalmist best describes the role of the wilderness in Israel’s history when he sings, “But he [God] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness” (Psalm 78:52).
CONCLUSIONS: THE WILDERNESS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
In the Old Testament, the wilderness was:
- A place to temporarily escape the pressures of life.
- A place to find strength from God.
- A place to find strength from God.
- A place to discover more about yourself.
- A place that builds character.
- A place that prepares you for the future.
THE WILDERNESS AND THE LIFE OF JESUS
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16).
Jesus spent more time in the wilderness than most realize. He began his life as a spiritual leader under the ministry of John the Baptist. John was a priestly-prophet who lived in the wilderness (Luke 1:80) and preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:1-6). He was the one that the prophets spoke of who would be a forerunner to the Messiah, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Luke 3:3). John formed a community that lived an ascetic lifestyle in the wilderness (Matt. 3:4). Jesus was part of that community (John 1:29-34). Jesus spent the first part of his spiritual journey, literally, living in a wilderness experience.
After his baptism, Jesus was pushed further into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matt. 4:1). He was there for forty days and forty nights (the biblical language that means, “a really long time”). This was a defining experience for his life. It was this wilderness experience that solidified his understanding of both his identity and mission. This wilderness experience prepared him to follow God at all costs. In this wilderness experience Jesus felt the full weight of the power of Satan, and at the same time, the full concentration of God’s sustaining love. Jesus was tested, spent, and replenished in the wilderness.
This wilderness experience was common for the first-century Jewish sage. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes:
For the Rabbis, the desert, the wilderness is actually a desirable place to be — very different than what the English words perhaps imply. In our parlance, the words conjure images of desolation and helplessness. In the Rabbis’ view, however, the desert is a place where we can see more clearly, unencumbered by other distractions. The desert reflects freedom and uncluttered vision, allowing us to take stock of our lives and ourselves in an environment devoid of outside pressures. 2
The famous temptation experience was not Jesus’ last time in the wilderness. In fact, spending time in the wilderness was a regular practice for Jesus. He would get up early in the morning, before even fishermen, in order to get alone time in the wilderness (Mark 1:25).
At a certain point in his own Galilean ministry, he could no longer enter heavily populated areas and returned to living in a small village near the wilderness (John 11:54). No doubt, so that he could make regular excursions into that sacred space – the space that would become a metaphor for rest, security and God’s salvation (Rev. 12:14).
CONCLUSIONS: THE WILDERNESS AND JESUS
For Jesus, the wilderness was:
- A place of testing.
- A place of introspection.
- A place of preparation.
- A place of replenishing.
- A place of security.
I hope you can see the importance of the sacred space called, The Wilderness. There are several general topics that I hope to write about in dealing with your time in The Wilderness. In doing so, I hope to bring Jesus’ wilderness experience into 21st-century language. That’s always a dangerous endeavor. But, in this case, worth the risk.
THE WILDERNESS BLOG CATEGORIES
I’ll be writing about the wilderness under two main categories, with five sub-categories under each.
Category #1 – Emotional Health.
This category focuses on the way God feeds us and replenishes us in the wilderness experience. This is how God builds character in us and helps us find strength for living. Sub-categories I might address are:
Category #2 – Self-Discipline
This category focuses on the introspection that happens in the wilderness experience. This is where God tests us and prepares us for the future. Sub-categories I might address are:
These are simply starting places as we seek to grow stronger in Christ through our own wilderness experiences!
- What have been your “wilderness experiences” and how have they shaped your life?
- What is your general attitude toward the “wilderness experience?”
- How can you carve out time to get alone with God? What would that time look like?