“The Word” (Λόγος) and the “Wilderness”

The word “wilderness” or “Desert” – “Midbar” (מִדְבָּר) in Hebrew – appears 272 times in the Bible (Old testament).

The meaning of “midbar” in modern Hebrew is an arid area. A place where crops cannot grow.

But in the Bible, it has two different meanings:

  1. Desert or desolate place.
  2. A place where the shepherds take the flock to graze.

An example of the “Midbar” as a wilderness or desert:

The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;

Isaiah 35:1

But in other places, the “midbar” is referred to lands that are not dry but rather quite fertile:

And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness (midbar), and do not lay a hand on him”

Genesis 37:22

Although the word “midbar” was translated here to “wilderness” in English, we know that this story took place in the valley of Dothan, which is a fertile valley.

Why is this ambiguity?

In order to. understand the meaning of the word Midbar (מִדְבָּר), we need to look for its root. In Hebrew, all words have roots and from the roots different branches can be created. But the original meaning is found in the root.

The word “midbar” מִדְבָּר comes from the root D.B.R.

Other meaning branching out of this root is: “To speak”

  • Diber (v.) דִבֵּר – Spoke
  • Davar דָבָר (n.) – Spoken word
  • Diber (n.) דִבֵּר – Commandment

How are “wilderness”and “speaking” related?

The good shepherd

Let’s check the original meaning of the root D.B.R.

In the ancient Hebrew and in other Semitic languages, it means “to lead”

A shepherd leads his sheep. He makes then lie in green pastures. He saves them from the lion and the bear. If one of hundred sheep is lost, he will leave the 99 to find the one.

This is what it means to be a leader.

And for this reason, all the faithful leaders in the Bible were shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David.

The more common use of the root D.B.R is in the verb “speak” – דִבֵּר and the noun “spoken word” – דָבָר. In Greek: Λόγος.

This is clear: the one who speaks is the leader, and he leads through spoken word. The shepherd also leads with his voice:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

The “spoken word” then generated a more profound meaning in Hebrew: “The important thing” which is another meaning in Hebrew of “davar” דָבָר.

“In the beginning was the Word (Greek: Λόγος, Hebrew: דָבָר) and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.

Where “the Word” and “Desert” meet

in the history of the sons of Israel, the spoken Word “Davar” דָבָר, Λόγος is spoken in the desert.

And this makes a lot of sense: God is the leader of the people. He led them in the desert (“midbar”) and spoke (“diber”) to them and gave them His commandments (“dibrot”).

All branches of the root D.B.R meet in the story of Exodus.

Interestingly, the names of the last two books of the Pentateuch – the Torah, are of the same root D.B.R:

  • Numbers – in Hebrew: “Bamidbar” בְּמִדְבַּר – “In the desert”
  • Deuteronomy – in Hebrew: “Devarim” דְּבָרִים – “The spoken Words”
Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law, Gustave Doré

So how can we tell which is the correct meaning of “midbar” in the Bible?

When you encounter the word “wilderness” or “desert” in the Bible, it might be one of two meanings: Dry wilderness, or a place where the sheep are led to graze.

How can we tell which is which?

So probably, the original meaning was – a place where shepherds took the flock out.

Later on, a secondary meaning evolved from the original. The shepherds took the sheep to feed them in an area that was not cultivated. In Israel, in many cases, that was the frontier of the desert.

So the word “midbar” got a new meaning, which was: a wilderness where very little rain falls. A desert.

In the Bible itself, you can distinguish between the two quite easily:

In most of the cases, when the word “midbar”, translated to wilderness or desert, appears by its own or is used to refer to a certain name of a desert – you know it is “a desert”.

So “Wilderness of Sinai“, or “Wilderness of Judah” point to the desert of Sinai and the desert of Judah.

But when “midbar” appears before a name of a town, then we know that this is the area where the shepherds of that town took the flocks to feed them.

Therefore, Wilderness of Ziph and Wilderness of Maon are those lands out of the cultivated fields, where the people of Ziph and Maon feed their flocks.

Many types of “desert”

In the Biblical Hebrew, we have other words that are used for a desert. They represent different level of aridity.

“midbar” is probably the mildest desert. because there is enough vegetation for the goats and sheep to be fed.

Now David and his men were in the Desert of Maon, in the Arabah south of Jeshimon

1 Samuel 23:24 (NIV)

In this short verse there are three different words for desert:

  1. Desert of Maon (“midbar”) מִדְבָּר – this is the area close to the town of Maon, where there is enough food for the sheep
  2. Araba עֲרָבָה – plains in the desert. Here we read that David was in a part of the “midbar” of Maon that was a flatland.
  3. Jeshimon יְשִׁימוֹן – a more arid area of very little rain.

the LORD, Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, Who led us through the wilderness (“midbar”), Through a land of deserts (“arabah”) and pits, Through a land of drought (“tsiya”) and the shadow of death (“tsalmaveth”), Through a land that no one crossed And where no one dwelt

Jeremiah 2:6 (NKJV)

Here, four different words for desert in one verse:

  1. Midbar מִדְבָּר
  2. Arabah עֲרָבָה
  3. Zia צִיָּה – extreme arid desert.
  4. shadow of death צַלְמָוֶת – a land where death rules.
Negev desert in southern Israel

Evidence for Global Climate Change in the Bible?

desert

When Joshua entered the land of Canaan, did he meet the same land with the same climate that we know today?

 The descendants of Joseph came to Joshua and asked, “Why have you given us only one portion of land as our homeland when the Lord has blessed us with so many people?”  Joshua replied, “If there are so many of you, and if the hill country of Ephraim is not large enough for you, clear out land for yourselves in the forest where the Perizzites and Rephaites live.” (Joshua 17:14-15)

When the sons of Joseph are about to conquer their inheritance in the land of Canaan, it seems that the land is covered with forests so they cannot cultivate the land. Where are those forests today?

Then the people went out into the field against Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. The people of Israel were defeated there before the servants of David, and the slaughter there that day was great, 20,000 men. For the battle there was spread over the whole countryside, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured. (2 Samuel 18:6-8)

When Absalom stirred a rebellion against David, his father, they end up fighting in the forest of Ephraim. later on Absalom was caught by his hair in a big terebinth tree in that forest. Certainly a thick forest!

Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. (2 Kings 2:23-24)

In the story above, Elisha went from the Jordan valley up to the mountains of Bethel. What interests us in this story is the fact that there were bears living in the woods at that area. Today this area is semi-arid.

The land of Israel in the time of the Bible and today

The three stories above, and many others, leads the reader of the Bible to think that the land of Israel is covered with thick forest where numerous beasts live.

When the American author Mark Twain visited the holy land 150 years ago, he was therefore quite surprised to see just the opposite:

“….. A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

(The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, Mark Twain 1867)

How can we explain the difference between what Mark Twain describes and what the Bible tells about the nature of the land?

The Human intervention theory

In the turn of the 20th century, the Ottomans that were the rulers of the whole middle east, started a project of building the Hejaz Railway – a railway for a train that would go from Damascus to Medina. One branch line from this railway went all the way to Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea.

When using a steam locomotive for a train, one needs a lot of wood for burning and generating the steam. It is evident that the Ottomans cut a lot of the woods in the country for the train to operate.

The theory of human intervention claims that because of the railway and also because of overgrazing of the goats of local shepherds, the woods declined dramatically in the end of the 19 century.

As much as the decline of forest in the end of the 19 century is evident, it cannot explain what Mark Twain told us about the land in the middle of the 19 century.

First, when he visited the land in 1867, the Hejaz railway was only a plan. But moreover, the population of the land was scarce. As Twain himself describes: “a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route”. so ‘overgrazing’ does not sound like the real story here.

The Global Climate Change theory

According to this theory, the climate in the time of the bible was different than it is today, and the land of Israel got much more rain compared to our days at that time of Joshua and the kingdoms of Judea and Israel.

There are climatologists that try to show climate changes according to geological evidence. For example: this site.

Do we have any evidence showing that there was more rain in israel in ancient times?

Evidence from the Negev (desert of southern Israel)

In the arid mountains of the Negev, we can find very old terebinth trees of the species: Mt. Atlas mastic tree (Pistacia atlantica)

terebinth

What is interesting about this kind of tree is that it is very common throughout other areas of Israel that are not a desert. But in the mountains of the Negev, this is the only tree that can be found, and most of the individual trees are very old and are estimated to be hundred years old.

This fact led the scholars of botany to believe that those trees were abundant in the Negev a few hundred years ago, or even thousands of years, and the Negev was not so arid as it is today. during the last hundreds of years the Negev became what it is today, and only very old trees remained as living fossils.

Summary

Regardless of what you think about global warming and climate changes, it is quite clear that the land of Israel had more woods and probably more rain in the time of the Bible. The Negev in the time of the Bible was probably wetter and Israel had real natural forests which are rare today.