If you’re anything like me, you don’t take much of anything you see, hear, or read these days at face value. As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, we human beings are prone to taking things out of context or just plain exaggeration.
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As a result, the truth is typically something that we have to seek out on our own. A wise man once said to “make every effort to present yourself before God as tried and true, as an unashamed worker cutting a straight path with the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
It stands to reason that in order to cut this “straight path with the word of truth,” we need to know what this word actually says. In other words, we need understand what God meant when He inspired the authors of the Bible to write what they did. This can be done in several ways, but the approach I tend to favor in my personal Bible study time is to learn the meaning of specific words (in the original Hebrew or Greek) within the context of a specific passage of Scripture.
This method has led me to develop a slight obsession with Blue Letter Bible’s free lexicon. What do I love most about this resource? If you can read, you can use this thing. You don’t have to have an advanced seminary degree or this high and lofty exegetical knowledge of Scripture to use it. (Seriously, it’s amazing. In fact, I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to hop on over to Blue Letter Bible and check it out. I can wait.)
When I see the word wilderness in the Bible, I immediately think of lots and lots of dirt. And rocks. And the blistering hot sun. (As the delicate, fair-skinned flower that I am, I can assure you that I will never willingly wander into anything even remotely resembling a wilderness without a really, really good reason.) But every time you read the word wilderness in the Bible, it may not mean exactly what you think it means.
This is where we get back to that lexicon I’m slightly obsessed with. You see, there are 9 different words for wilderness that are used in the Bible—7 in the Old Testament and 2 in the New. For the sake of time (and the possibility of eye strain), I’m going to focus on these words one at a time, beginning with midbar (or מִדְבָּר if transliteration isn’t your thing).
When the authors of the Bible used the word midbar to describe a place, they were actually depicting something slightly more pleasant than the vast, wild, wasteland of isolation and almost certain death that I had always envisioned when I heard the word wilderness. Essentially, midbar can be likened to an area where livestock are driven to graze. Sure it’s isolated and uninhabited, but it’s meant to be a bovine buffet (or sheep smorgasbord if mutton is more your thing), not a place for people to put down roots. Going by this definition, the wilderness doesn’t seem so bad, right? But you probably wouldn’t want to wander out there without your fire starter or maybe a blanket. (Unless you’re Bear Grylls. Then you can just make a sleeping bag out of a sheep carcass or something.)
One of the earliest uses of midbar in the Old Testament is in Genesis 21. Abraham had a concubine, Hagar, who gave him a child (Ishmael) before his wife Sarah was able to. After Sarah finally gave birth to their son Isaac, she didn’t want Ishmael to have a share in his little half-brother’s inheritance, so she told her husband to send Hagar and Ishmael away. And, being that they already lived in the middle of nowhere, the only place to go was even deeper into the middle of nowhere (i.e., the wilderness).
At first glance, this seems like a pretty savage move on Abraham’s part, but it actually sets the stage for God to show up in a pretty fantastic way. Here’s Abraham giving his concubine and oldest son a loaf of bread and a jug of water and wishing them happy trails as they hobble off into the sunset. (Good luck in the midbar, guys!) So they wander around and eventually exhaust their food and water supply. (Which, let’s be honest, was pretty meager to begin with.)
In a place of desperation, almost at the point of death, Hagar actually abandons Ishmael under a bush, because she doesn’t want to watch him die. (How heartbreaking is that?) But here’s the thing. An angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar, telling her that God has 1) heard the voice of Ishmael as he sat essentially dying of dehydration under a bush, 2) promises that Ishmael will be the father of a “great nation,” and 3) provides sustenance for the both of them right there where they are (Genesis 21:17-19).
The passage goes on to say that Hagar and Ishmael settled there in the midbar—inhabiting a once uninhabitable place, which was only made habitable by the hand of God—and the Lord was with Ishmael as he grew. Had Abraham not sent them away, Hagar and Ishmael would have continued to live in the comfort of Abraham’s household and in the shadow of the legitimate heir to his father’s estate. Moving through the wilderness was uncomfortable, difficult, and even painful for this mother and her young son. But it was necessary if Ishmael was going to walk according to the plan that God had for his life.
Although I’ve done my best to avoid the wilderness seasons of life, like everyone, I inevitably have to face them head on. And I can say that, 9 times out of 10, I’ve felt as ill-equipped as Hagar did facing a literal wilderness with nothing but a jug of water and some crusty old bread. (I mean, maybe it was a fresh loaf. But at that point, does it really matter?) In those seasons, I found that I could never be reminded too many times that I wasn’t the only one who was facing whatever it was that I was facing.
The Bible is full of stories of men and women, young and old, who traveled into the wilderness (literally and figuratively) and came out the other side. Some of these stories you probably already know, while others—like the story of Hagar and Ishmael—you may never have considered before. Throughout each and every one of these stories, however, is woven the same incredible account of God’s faithfulness. His faithfulness to respond to their cries for help. His faithfulness to deliver on His promises. His faithfulness to meet their every need.
The wilderness is a difficult place to be. This is in large part because we were never truly designed to live there. It’s in the wilderness, however, that we learn to depend on the only One who can make those inhabitable places habitable.
Please join me next week, as I continue to reflect on the 9 different biblical meanings of the word wilderness and what it means to travel through these seasons of life well and with purpose.