9 Words for Wilderness (Part 3)

I love a snappy blog intro as much as the next person, but this week I’m just going to dive straight to the point. (Honestly, I’ve been racking my brain for almost an hour trying to think of something clever to lead in with, but it just isn’t happening. It’s been a long couple of weeks, guys.)

The word I’m going to focus on this round is ‘arabah. (That’s עֲרָבָה in Hebrew and sounds a little something like “air-uh-VAH” for those of us who haven’t quite mastered the art of reading ancient Semitic script aloud. Or at all.)

Throughout most of its 61 uses in the Old Testament, this word is translated as “plain.” (Think geography not vanilla.) Being someone who grew up on reruns of “Little House on the Prairie,” this word conjures up images of women in flowery bonnets, riding in creaky wagons past rusty, old windmills and acres and acres of wheat. So the “plains of Moab” don’t sound so terrible to me—maybe a little dicey during tornado season, but nothing to be too concerned about.


In other verses, we see ‘arabah translated as the less pleasant (at least in my temperate climate-loving mind) “desert” or “steppe.” Your basic wilderness terms synonymous with your basic, arid, wilderness-y things.

But it’s the root of the word—‘arab—that really got my attention. Ultimately this word refers to the transition from day to night, specifically in the way that the darkness overtakes the light as the sun appears to “wander” out of the sky. Modern science being what it is, we know that the sun doesn’t actually go anywhere at night, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the sun setting = impending darkness. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not hugely fond of wandering around in the dark.

As I continued to think about this word, I was reminded of John the Baptist—the itinerate prophet-rabbi with a penchant for wearing camel hair clothing and snacking on bugs. (When in the wilderness, I guess…)

“A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of Adonai, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…'” -Is. 40:3

Although John the Baptist (or the “Immerser,” as some like to say) first appears in the gospel of Matthew, his story really begins in the first chapter of Luke. Long story short, his parents couldn’t have children, but God allowed them to have a son; said son was born, said son was dubbed John, and said son was called to insanely big things—not the least of which was to announce the coming of the long-awaited Messiah.


The people of Israel had been in an ‘arab kind of wilderness for a very long time—about 400 years, in fact. (That’s longer than most countries have been countries.) By the time John came along, the Jewish people had been occupied by just about every foreign power under the sun that came their way, and their latest overlords (the Romans) weren’t exactly known for being benevolent rulers. Needless to say, Israel was desperate for a savior.

“And you, child, will be called a prophet of Elyon. For you will go before Adonai to prepare His ways, … to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of shalom.” -Luke 1:76,79

So when the High Priest (a.k.a., Zacharias, a.k.a., John’s dad) announced that his newborn son was the one that the prophet Isaiah said would come to “prepare the way of the Lord,” my guess is that the people were pretty happy. Really happy, I bet. No more foreign occupation and no more religious oppression, right?


Well, at the end of the chapter something strange happened. John, a Levite from the lineage of Aaron and the son of the High Priest of the nation of Israel, wasn’t trained to serve in the temple. This is the very place we would expect him to spend his time as God’s mouthpiece. (At least, I do.) No, John was raised in the wilderness. From the time he was a child until he was ready to move into ministry as a prophet, John spent all of his time in the desert.

But why did John need to be in the wilderness to accomplish what God had called him to do? Well, I believe that the short answer is that God was keeping him hidden. And I think there are 2 reasons for this.

1. John was hidden in the wilderness, so that he would only know the ways of the Lord.

Today, there’s a word we like to use for people like this. Sheltered. When I was a kid, I used to get teased by my friends for being sheltered, because we didn’t have cable at my house until I was 17 years old. (I was convinced that my parents just didn’t want me to watch the same shows that my friends did. And they probably didn’t. But, come to find out, cable was pretty dang expensive in the 90s.)

I’m not sure if John ever got teased for being the weird kid who lived in the desert and ran around in camel hair clothes. (But kids are kids no matter what millennia you live in, so I like to think there was probably at least a little teasing.) But that sheltered environment was priming John for a calling that no one else had been given before that time nor since—to announce the arrival of the Messiah, the One that Israel had been waiting for since, well, the beginning of time. Simply put, John couldn’t be like all the other kids.


If he hadn’t grown up in the wilderness (away from the distractions of the culture he was born into), he wouldn’t have recognized Jesus as the Messiah when He [Jesus] came to be baptized in the Jordan and begin His ministry on Earth. And thus John wouldn’t have been able to fulfill the destiny that God had on his life.

The children of Israel were desperate for a savior but not the kind they needed. If John hadn’t grown up in the solitude and shelter of the desert, I think it’s safe to assume that he would have fallen prey to that same desperate mentality—and pointing people away from their Savior in the process. Maybe even leading them to follow someone else entirely. He needed that time in the wilderness, because he needed to learn to differentiate the voice of God from the noise of the people.

2. John was hidden in the wilderness, so that his voice would stand out when it was time for him to speak.

Before John the Baptist came into the picture, countless others had claimed to be 1) the fulfillment of the prophecy given in Isaiah 40:3 or 2) the Messiah Himself. I’m sure that many people were led astray by these false prophets. (And I know that many more have been led astray by false prophets and false Messiahs since.) Desperation makes people do crazy things. But what John had to say was distinctly different from the others. 

While all of those false prophets had doubtlessly told the people what they wanted to hear, this prophet testified of the coming light that was Jesus Christ. The light that would bring an end to the ‘arab kind of darkness (and silence) that Israel had been living in for 4 centuries.


“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” -Isaiah 9:2
Sometimes the wilderness seasons just don’t make any sense to us. We ask ourselves why we have to go through them at all. We feel isolated and alone. Maybe even strange and misunderstood. Like a weirdo running around the desert wearing camel hair and eating bugs while everyone else gets to wear linen and eat falafel. (Yum.)
But if we looked at those seasons in the wilderness in light of John the Baptist’s story, we could see that God wants to use these seasons to 1) mold our perspectives to conform to His and 2) birth in us the message of His redemption, which we can then share with others. It’s in the wilderness that He prepares us to be both the announcers and the bearers of the Light of the world.