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.


9 Words for Wilderness (Part 2)

Until about 10 minutes ago, I had no idea which word for wilderness I was going to write about. To be honest, between work, school, and the general craziness that comes with being a living, breathing human adult, I didn’t know if I would be able to post anything at all anytime soon.

But let me just say, the Lord truly is an eleventh hour God—showing up in ways (and often when) I least expect Him to. That might not rattle the cages of you spontaneous, go-with-the-flow types, but if you know anything about me, you know that I’m a planner. My lists have lists, and I make lists for everything.


Confession: I have the next 2 months of my life scheduled out in embarrassingly fine detail. That’s a time-management skill though, right?

So staring down a list (case in point) of 8 possible directions to go with this series left me feeling more or less like a deer in the headlights. AI was looking over the other words I could write about, however, there was one that stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Maybe because it’s the one that speaks the most to my present situation.


The word is tsivah. (Or צִיָּה for you Hebrew scholars out there.)

With a variety of meanings, all synonymous with “parched,” like “dry,” “barren,” and “drought,” this is the one word for wilderness that makes me really, really thirsty. And to add insult to injury, it’s pronounced “see-YAH”—which is exactly what I’d say if you told me that you wanted to take a trip there.

No thanks. You have fun in that dry, barren wasteland. I’ll be over here by the pool with my big ‘ole glass of iced tea.

But something in the definition of tsivah really caught my attention. (In my last post, I mentioned my deep [and completely rational] love for Blue Letter Bible’s lexicon.) As I read on, I was surprised to find that this word is also translated as “solitary place.”

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” -Isaiah 35:1

Side note: “Them” that Isaiah is referring to in the verse above is Israel. (Namely the Jewish people.) If you’re not already Jewish and you’ve made Jesus your Lord and Savior, you’re now a part of “them,” too. (Can I get 3 cheers for adoption?)

What I see in the words of Isaiah is the beauty that comes out of the struggle. The children of Israel had been going through a never ending cycle of deliverance, sin, bondage, and deliverance for a very long time. Needless to say, that can make for a frustrating existence, not to mention an isolating one.

If you’ve walked through any measure of difficulty in your life, you—like me—have probably been tempted to believe the lie that you’re walking it alone. (And if you’re anything like me, you’ve been a sucker more times than you care to admit, believing the lie over and over again.) Even when faced with the truth that you’re not alone, however, that feeling of isolation can be a difficult one to shake.


Sometimes that feeling of loneliness can be so strong it’s tangible—wrapping around your heart and wringing out all your hope, joy, and peace, then dragging you down to a place that you never wanted to go. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there.

As an introvert, I physically need to be alone from time to time to recharge. Give me a good book, and I will happily camp out on my sofa all day long with my favorite blanket and read. (Just don’t forget to feed me.) But I’ve also been in a near-constant battle with depression since I was 10 years old, and depression thrives on isolation. And so does addiction. And anxiety. Why?

Because God didn’t create us to be alone!

Even the most introverted person in the world gets antsy when left alone for too long. Too much solitude is uncomfortable for anyone, and this is a good thing. We were never meant to live in that place.


In Isaiah 7, we read that the dry, parched wasteland that the people of God had called home for so long was about to go through a radical transformation—becoming a lush, tropical paradise. It would be beautiful, habitable, and unrecognizable.

“And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.” -Isaiah 35:7

This is such an incredible illustration that these dry, barren, solitary places aren’t meant to be where you or I make our home. We’re just passing through them, and one day “the desert will rejoice” and we will see why we needed to travel down that path. Go through that experience. Face that failure.

The wilderness is often a place of struggle and tremendous hardship. But more than that, it’s a place of preparation. Sometimes we enter this place of solitude by choice. But more often than not we don’t. Regardless of how we get there, however, God will always prove Himself to be faithful, leading us out of those dry, barren places and into the next seasons of our lives as we continue to seek Him.

“He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in.” -Psalm 107-35-36


9 Words for Wilderness (Part 1)

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.

This slideshow of puppies wearing cable knit sweaters will literally change your life! You’ll look like a Victoria’s Secret model—or Calvin Klein model (guys, this is for you, too)—if you drink this green smoothie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next 300 days! (Just as a side note, please don’t do that.)

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.