Pale brown hills of sand and rock rise on either side of the road from Jericho to Jerusalem and stretch as far as I can see. I want to call it “desert” but our guide insists on “wilderness”: this is wild, uncultivated land that needs just a few showers to spring into bloom. Every year it turns green after the winter rains, then gradually the vegetation browns and dies away. But whether it is green or brown, this is grazing land. Pale horizontal bands mark the paths sheep and goats follow in their search for food. Four thousand years ago, Abraham and Lot walked these hills and separated when the land would not sustain them both. To us it might look bleak, but this land gives life when it is watered.
I have written before of how the wilderness calls us to God. Entering its bleak expanse, our eyes strain for a diversion. Muffled in silence, our ears long for the slightest noise. We thirst for something that earthly sights and sounds can only hint at: the face and voice of God.
The wilderness calls us to God, and God calls us in the wilderness:
Moses was leading his flocks through wilderness when God spoke from a flaming bush and revealed his name (Exodus 3). God took the children of Israel from Egypt into the wilderness to give them life through his word (see Ezekiel 20:10-11). John the Baptist went into the wilderness to prepare the way for the Word-made-flesh (Matthew 3).
It can’t be coincidence that the Hebrew word for “wilderness,” midbar, comes from the root word dabar, “word” or “saying.” Midbar can mean “from or of the word.” In the wilderness/of the word (midbar) the children of Israel heard God’s word (dabar) and there they became his people.
I always thought Israel wandered in the desert because they happened to live in that part of the world. But God chose this land particularly for them. Is there something about wilderness emptiness that is needed, for us to hear and respond to God’s call? If so, it must matter that the Promised Land is wilderness and not desert. It’s not barren sand, it’s fertile soil that just needs the water to bring it to life. If we are meant to learn from that image: then when we find ourselves in what feels like the wilderness, we should not fix our eyes on what looks to us like sand, and despair. Rather we should attend to his word and yearn for him in the silence. We should wait for the Spirit to fall like rain so the seeds of God’s Word can spring to life in our souls.
© 2017 Sarah Christmyer
You might also like my blog series on Thirsting for God, which starts here, or this post:
Thirsty? Choose Where to Go With Your Longing (a lesson from the Woman at the Well)