Biblical Wilderness

This paper sets out to bring together on the one hand a couple of books on Wilderness in the Bible, one on the wilderness tradition in the Hebrew Bible by Terry L Burden,1 a teacher in Kentucky, the other an attempt to set out a theology of wilderness by Robert Barry Leal,2 a university professor in Sydney, and on the other an exploration of contemporary wilderness in the work and writing of John Muir, a 19th century leading naturalist and the founder of the National Park Movement in the USA, and to see both against the background of the current ecological emphasis on the environment such as you find in Brueggeman, Habel and a growing number of bibical scholars and theologians.3


Leal suggests that it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that biblical scholars and theologians began to take seriously such issues as the natural order, the land  and the environment, wilderness and wild places, and even then they were much more reluctant to take the issues on board than their forebears had been a century earlier to buy into the popular scientific attitudes which saw nature as something that was entirely under human control. Today, with the emphasis on global warming and all matters ecological and environmental, there is some evidence that biblical scholarship is catching up, with comments like that of Carol Ochs4 (teacher at the Hebrew Union College — Jewish  Institute of Religion in New York City) to the effect that wilderness is ‘the single most informative experience in the creation of the Jewish people’, alongside Ulrich Mauser(Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary) who says that without it the development of religion in the Old Testament would be ‘unintelligible’.

Burden similarly finds the concept of wilderness running right through the Old Testament and featuring prominently in the New. In the Old Testament, he says, Israel’s belief in herself and her understanding of the acts of God depend on the wilderness tradition and the whole Hebrew-Jewish tradition itself is shaped by Israel’s experience of wilderness over the years. In other words the wilderness tradition is the result of interaction between God’s land and God’s people, different in different times and in different places, constitutive and not prophetic. In the New Testament, somewhat similarly but different, wilderness features prominently in the Temptations narrative, in John the Baptist6 (a0rrioj=wild honey=‘belonging to the field’)  and as the dwelling place for the mentally deranged.

But does the Bible understand by ‘wilderness’ what we understand and how does it relate to what we mean when we talk about wilderness or ‘wild places’?

In the RSV the word ‘wilderness’ occurs 245 times in the Old Testament and 35 times in the New, but the word in the original is not always the same. The most common word in the Old Testament is midhbar, but midhbar is not so much arid desert as grazing land, mainly in the foothills of Palestine. Joel, for example, refers to ‘the pastures of the wilderness’ not exploited for agricultural purposes (1:19, 1:20, 2:22). Its root meaning is ‘to drive out’ and so midbhar is the place to which shepherds drove out their flocks.

Another word is arabah, best translated by ‘steppe’, and that could be a large region or simply a small limited space. In Genesis 36:24, for example, Anah finds hot springs there, in 1 Samuel 17:28 David is charged with having left his sheep there and in 2 Chronicles 26:10 the wilderness has flowers and cisterns for large herds. Over time it seems to have come to mean the large sparsely populated areas beyond the land used for agriculture.

In the LXX and in the New Testament the word is e0rhmoj, with a root meaning of abandonment, and may refer not only to a locality but also to a person or a cause. So in the case of John the Baptist in the wilderness or Jesus on the Mount of Temptation it is a complex mix of environment, mental state and a deep sense of isolation due to emotional stress.

Going back to the Old Testament, of those 245 references not less than 100 are in the Pentateuch. all dealing with the wanderings from Egypt to Canaan, but the emphasis is much more on everything that happened there rather than on what it was like to live in the wilderness. The wilderness was little more than a backcloth for everything else, and what it does, according to Burden, is to intensify the emotions of danger, fear, isolation and loneliness (all emotions closely linked with religion), much as light effects and music intensify feelings in a play or a film. That is to say, the geographical wilderness underlines and brings out the emotional wilderness. Wilderness is a place of solitude, where all things are fragile needing special care and attention.

When we come to the prophets, literal wilderness is rare. What we find there is much more wilderness imagery and except for Jeremiah (for whom it is a place of anger and judgement) the overall impression is of restoration which is intensified once we get to the period in Babylon, the return and the diaspora.

Wilderness imagery in the Psalms is even stronger and the images more varied. Burden,for example, finds  that in the Psalms wilderness is referred to variously as a place of renewal (water and miracles), sometimes literal sometimes metaphorical (Ps 65: 9-16); a place of deliverance where God provides food and water (Ps 105: 39-43); a sign of the guiding hand of God and a receptive attitude on the part of the community (Ps 78: 12-16. Cf Neh 9: 12-15); a place of reclamation, to make room for cities and vineyards (Ps 107: 4, 33-38); a place where faith is tested (Ps 95) and one of a series of experiences recited as a thanksgiving (Ps 136: 16). 

Leal says something similar, drawing attention to both positive and negative images.7

So to sum up, Wilderness in the Bible is not all vastness, nothingness, horror and disaster, though all those elements are there. It is rather a very diverse arena — almost a cauldron — in which all life takes places, where everything interacts with everything and everybody, and against which everything and everybody must be judged and valued. It is an image capable of arousing and nurturing the most diverse emotions, and the location of some of the most startling encounters between a human being and God, beginning with Hagar in the wilderness right through at least to two people on the road to Emmaus and Paul on the road to Damascus.  

Like it, love it or hate it, it is there. It is God’s gift. It is the very crucible of life. It is where you find God, and God finds you. For many centuries, and almost from the beginning of the Christian era, that crucible has been taken to mean the crucible of human life. Human beings saw themselves as the crown of creation and assumed a position of power and dominance, admittedly with some sense of responsibility but usually a sense of responsibility judged by what was best for humanity.

In the last half-century two things have brought about change. One (the more recent) is the emphasis on the environment and ecology, global warming, shortage of fossil fuels, the need for new sources of energy and so on. The other is the life and work of John Muir whose legacy is now coming into its own as he re-shapes our thinking on the natural order, the wonder and reality of the rest of creation in its own right, and a more appropriate role for humanity within that crucible. To him we now turn.

John Muir (1838-1913)   

Long before it became fashionable among biblical scholars to develop a theology of the wilderness John Muir was working out his own theology. Often described as one of the greatest naturalists the world has ever known, he founded the John Muir Trust in Britain, the parallel Sierra Club in the USA and the concept of National Parks worldwide. So what did he see when he looked at the wild places of the earth? And how can he help us to a more biblical understanding of those wild places and to re-read some of those biblical passages about wilderness with greater understanding as a result of a richer wilderness experience?

The Man

We have to begin with Muir the man, because the starting point is that Muir was driven into the wilderness by religion — bad religion  — the religion of a tyrannical father — and there in the wilderness (not unlike Moses who fled from the terror to the wilderness, and many others, possibly including Jesus) Muir found a new faith.

He was born in Scotland and spent most of his life in the United States. His father, Daniel, had been converted at an early age to a particularly vicious brand of Presbyterianism, and with every theological lurch to the right Daniel was always in the vanguard. For Daniel there was only ever one god, and Daniel was his prophet. He was a God of wrath. Sweat and pain were the passports to heaven and John’s childish misdemeanours were severely punished. ‘If you want to learn to swim’, he told his children, ‘go to the frogs and they will give you all the lessons you need’. On another occasion he forced John to dig a ninety foot well on their farm, eight feet of it through a fine, hard sandstone, cramped in a space about three feet in diameter, chipping away with heavy hammer and chisel from morn till dusk, day after day, and his father never gave an hour to help him.

Besides being studious and an avid reader John was inventive. He loved intricate machinery, all the parts working together towards a desired end. This was what gave him his first great insight to the workings of the natural world — hence once of his aphorisms, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.’ His father showed not the slightest interest in anything he did and in the end John concluded that if his father’s world was the world of the civilised creeds of the Christian faith he preferred the softer sanctuary of wild nature.

In 1867, he had an eye accident which blinded him for a month and when he regained his sight he knew exactly what he had to do with his life. His eyes were opened. The blind man began to see. So instead of going to medical school as intended he set off on a thousand-mile walk from Louisville, Kentucky, to the Gulf of Mexico, living virtually as a tramp, but all the time observing nature and absorbing everything. And there, in that experience of wild places, he discovered an unbounded passion for the mountains — sublime, holy and awesome. ‘Everything is perfectly clean and full of divine lessons,’ he wrote; and ‘we are now in the mountains and they are in us.’ He much preferred them to the lowlands. In the lowlands people blast roads out of solid rocks, dams and streams ‘to work in mines like slaves.’ In the mountains tracks and trails are like ‘light ornamental stitching or embroidering.’

From then on he was every bit as religious, and certainly no less passionate, than his father but in a different way. ‘John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow-sinners into the Jordan than I to baptise all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains,’ he wrote.

But was his passion for natural religion rather than creeds and doctrine simply an escape from the claustrophobia of his father’s faith or was it a rediscovery of his father’s faith in places his father had never thought of looking?

To answer we need to examine five main areas.

Muir’s Language

First, language. Religious people, especially extremists, are renowned for their specialist and esoteric language. As you might expect, Muir knew it all — he’d grown up with it —but now he preferred to relate it to his new-found vision rather than his father’s faith.

So, if people feel ‘tired of the world’ or ‘choked in the sediments of society’, he tells them to take to the hills, wash in their streams, bask among the flowers. This way their doubts will disappear, their carnal incrustations melt off, and their soul breathe deep and free in God's atmosphere of beauty and love. This is Muir’s understanding of new birth — relationships which are not primarily exploitative or economic, but sensuous, loving and respectful8 — and it calls for the baptism that will make you a new creature. ‘Never, he says, ‘shall I forget my baptism in this font. It happened in January, a resurrection day for many a plant and for me’.9 If people want ‘resurrection’, he sends them in February to witness a plant-resurrection — myriads of bright flowers crowding from the ground, like souls to a judgment. So we have conversion, baptism and resurrection.

For other examples of his use of religious language notice how he saw nature not as a hierarchy but as communion, how Jesus reversed the social hierarchies of nature (‘the last shall be first) by giving at least as much attention to nature as to people, and how his vision of a peacable kingdom akin to isaiah 11: 6-9, with Christ as ‘the little child’ and God as the Gentle Persuader, was more religious insight than precious ecology.10 

So what about buildings? Close by Yosemite National Park there is a mountain called Cathedral. Naturally that mountain had a special appeal for him, but then Muir saw every mountain as a cathedral, offering all the benefits of cathedrals made with hands and more besides. Mountains even a hundred miles away held a ‘spiritual power’ over him. With a capacity to transcend time and distance they were as near as a circle of friends. Sitting beneath pines more than two hundred feet high, he is thrilled. They are not crowded to­gether, and as the sunbeams stream through their feathery arches brightening the ground, he walks beneath the radiant ceiling in devout subdued mood as if ‘in a grand cathedral with mellow light sifting through coloured windows’, the whole landscape glowing with consciousness, ‘like the face of a god’, as ‘the hours go by uncounted.11 Here is ‘heaven and the dwelling place of the angels’.12 Were he tethered to a stake or tree there for ever he would live with the satisfaction of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ and be content with nothing more than bread and . . . water’, with ‘creation just beginning, the morning stars ‘still singing together and all the sons of God shouting for joy’.13

Put that alongside Moses and the burning bush, Elijah and the still small voice, Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, or Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and explore the depth. For Muir, the wilderness is a place where you should expect to find God.

A Place for Theophanies

Secondly, for that reason, and again in common with the biblical tradition, wilderness is a place for theophanies. Why? Because Muir’s God was every bit as active and involved in that natural world as he was in humanity. Muir’s God of Wild Places would always ensure a rich provision for all his creatures but to appreciate him you had to be alert enough to know where to find that provision, diligent enough to go out and seek it, and sensitive enough to recognise it when it was at hand.

One of the best examples is that of the first theophany, Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14; 21: 8-20), especially as presented by the story-telling skills of a Trevor Dennis.14

Dennis finds two scenes in the story of Hagar. First, is ‘the God Who Sees’ as Hagar in her misery runs away into the wilderness and sits down in her loneliness to bemoan her fate, only to be told by God to go back and try again — God has a different purpose for her. As Dennis tells it, the message is not that Hagar goes into the wilderness and finds God, but rather that in the wilderness she ‘sees God’. Why? Because first of all God sees her, and she has the eye to behold him. Not Hagar’s recognition of the God of the wilderness. But Hagar’s recognition of being seen by the God of the wilderness. It is not that we need to find God in the wilderness, but that we need to allow the God of the wilderness to find us and then to have the grace to recognise him.

In the second scene Dennis offers ‘the God Who Saves’. How? Only when in the wilderness Hagar faces the prospect of her child dying of hunger and thirst and knowing that before long she will follow him. All they need to survive is water. And the water is there. But only when she feels the urge to pick Ishmael up and give him a big hug, creating genuine warmth and affection in the wilderness, does she suddenly spot the well of water which had been there all the time. That water was the source of new life for them both. All she needed was to spot it, and that only happened when she found someone else in the wilderness and responded to them. To Muir, that reading would have been meat and drink.

Nature is a Palimpsest

Thirdly, Burden describes the wilderness tradition as the result of interaction between God’s land and God’s people. Muir perhaps is saying something similar when in one of his more helpful insights he refers to nature as a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a simple tablet, papyrus or other document on which history has written one layer after another without anything ever being erased to the point where even the most recent is virtually unreadable and the previous ones totally indecipherable. Yet there is not an error in it and every single contribution still holds all its original meaning.

Herbert F Smith,15 writing on Muir’s acute sensitivity, says this is exactly how Muir saw nature — a collection of fragments each complete in itself, yet all the time revealing itself in different ways, shaping and re-shaping itself with the intricacy of complex machinery (remember one of his boyhood’s interests) and presenting a different picture, and it is only our limited perception that prevents us from adequately appreciating the meaning of the whole and adjusting to the change.

Put like that a biblical parallel may not immediately spring to mind but closely related to Burden’s interaction between the people and the land and Muir’s unreadable palimpsest is a major tenet of Judaism (somewhat lost in later Christianity) that this whole crucible of life is constantly on the move with no final resting place.

Franziska Bark,16 commenting on Numbers 33:1, 16-23, for example, notes  of the Children of Israel that ‘they removed . . . pitched . . . journeyed . . . pitched. . . . went. . . pitched. . . removed. . . (and) encamped. . .’ but in the Torah they never arrive. Deuteronomy stops on the threshold. Fulfilment must wait till Joshua. The promise of Canaan (Exodus 6) may be what gets them going, maybe what defines both the goal and the direction, but the arrival is not the sole aim and purpose. For the Jews the life is in the wandering, not in the arriving. For Muir it is in the ongoing nature of the natural world, of which humanity is a part, reflected in the palimpsest.

In other words, both Muir’s palimpsest and Numbers offer us a view of a world (an arena, a wilderness) in constant change where each generation has to work things out for itself,  leaving behind a tradition on which others will do the same. This is perhaps why Muir hated hiking. Hiking, he said, suggests goals and we are never likely to arrive at them; more important to be aware that everything we touch touches everything else.17 Wilderness is a place where the satisfaction comes from the travelling as you interact with God and the whole of your environment.

To Blossom as God Intended

Fourthly, we come to the question as to whether the appropriate response to wilderness is to blossom (and to allow other things and other people also) to blossom as God intended — to allow things to be and to appreciate their beauty. not to try to recreate the wilderness according to our specifications.

Muir prefers a crab apple to a cultured apple, not because the crab apple is better but because he takes exception to the view that anything nature produces is coarse and can and must be eradicated by human culture. Too often, he says, our modifications can be positively damaging to the original species, citing the effects of human culture on wild roses, producing petals at the expense of stamens.

So imagine his excitement when he found evidence that wild wool growing on mountain sheep around Mount Shasta was much finer than the average grades of cultivated wool. On one trip he selected three fleeces — one from a large ram, one from a ewe and a third from a yearling — and after close examination, he shouted: ‘Well done for wildness! Wild wool is finer than tame!' And when his companions checked the fleeces for themselves it was right. Similarly, in a comparison of wild sheep with domestic sheep he finds domestic sheep expressionless, like a dull bundle of something only half-alive, while the wild sheep is as elegant and graceful as a deer, every moment manifesting admirable strength and character. The tame is timid. The wild is bold.18

But then his friends told him that wild sheep may have finer wool but Mary’s lamb had more, to which he replied that wild wool was not made for humans but for sheep and that if wild sheep in the Sierra were to have Mary’s wool only a few would survive a single season.19 Why does the quantity argument always seem to win? Why is it well-nigh impossible to obtain a hearing on behalf of nature from any other standpoint than that of human use?

Then comes a purple passage asserting that wildness needs no explanation.

‘Nature is a good mother, and sees well to the clothing of her many bairns’, he writes, citing birds with feathers, beetles with shining jackets and bears with shaggy furs, with thinly clad animals in the tropics and warmly clothed animals in the arctic, the squirrel with socks and mittens and a tail broad enough for a blanket, not to mention the mole ‘living always in the dark and in the dirt, yet as clean as the otter’.

Muir’s gospel is for partnership (à la Francis of Assisi) rather than domination and control (à la traditional understandings of Genesis). God’s rainbow covenant (Genesis 9:8-10), in which God promises to protect the web of life, and to draw all creatures into the history of salvation, goes way beyond humanity and has been sadly neglected in much biblical scholarship.20 There are psalms summoning all living things, along with rivers and hills, to praise God. (98:7-9) and there may be some evidence in the heart of the biblical wilderness that God had his own ground rules,21 because when fire breaks out in the wilderness (Num 11:1-3) and the people cry for help Yahweh stops it, but then when snakes and serpents bite people the snakes and serpents are not removed, though in due course a means is established whereby anyone bitten can be cured and live (Num 21:4-9). Does this perhaps suggest divine recognition that nature has its place too but any threat to life must be countered?

Again and again, in season and out of season, Muir writes, the question comes up, 'What are rattlesnakes good for?’ As if nothing that does not obviously make for the benefit of man had any right to exist; as if our ways were God's ways. Long ago, an Indian to whom a French traveller put this old question replied that their tails were good for toothache, and their heads for fever. Anyhow, he adds, they are all, head and tail, good for themselves, and we need not begrudge them their share of life’.22

Renewal in God’s Way

Isaiah 35 — that great chapter of wilderness renewal —  invites us to see renewal in God’s way. The prophet is no doubt right when he says the desert will rejoice and blossom as the rose, but not necessarily like the rose we have learned to love and we may not instinctively feel the same about it. So with people. In Muir’s (and Burden’s) vast cauldron of interaction between God and his creation, people too are under threat —hands trembling, knees knocking, hearts thumping. Rejects and misfits see themselves as the undesirable ‘plants of the wilderness’, written off or regarded by others only as candidates for reform. All are threatened. All have a future, but not necessarily as some of those self-appointed wilderness reformers would determine (vv 3-4).And when the blind see and the deaf hear, it may not always be in the way many would wish (vv 5-6).

Muir’s wilderness is still wilderness, not sanitised, cultured, touristic wildness but a totally new and different ‘highway’ and when Isaiah says that ‘the unclean’ will not pass over Muir would see it not as the exclusion of the undesirables but as a new way of appreciating their contibution — an insight not a million miles from the stories of Jesus. Read it, especially vv 8-9, in the light of the gospels. Isaiah, like Muir, yearns to see renewal, but renewal in God’s way, not ours.

A Harmony

Put like that there is no conflict between biblical wilderness and Muir’s wild places. On the contrary we may prefer to see them as complementing each other to provide a harmony, and I can offer one further piece of evidence.

In the wilderness (biblical and Muir) the constant uncertainty of life has to be balanced by the constant rediscovery of purpose and a sense of direction. The compass must always be kept intact. For Jews and Christians this has always meant regular worship: temple, synagogue, church. For Muir it meant immersing himself repeatedly in the wilderness. This is where he found awe and mysticism; this is where he saw pattern, design and unity; this is where he found pointers to the unity of God, and possibly explains why it was that the more he worshipped at this shrine the more he became aware of that unity between human beings and the rest of creation, even to the point where he refused to accept any distinction.

Put this alongside the story of Job. Job is a man who has lost his compass, and just about everything else. His life is in turmoil. He struggles in the wilderness of human experience but then through his own torment comes to appreciate the wider sufferings of the earth.23 Chapter 28 shows profound insight into human attitudes to creation24 and in the final struggle with an unjust world Job hears the Voice of Earth as those Yahweh speeches (38-39) undermine the notion of human domination going back to Genesis 1:26-28.25

Once Job comes to terms with the false assumption that God’s sole concern is with human beings, abandons the misguided notion that we are the centre and crown of his creation, and gains a new respect for the rest, his personal internal and spiritual turmoil is healed, and what has been lost can be restored. Redemption fulfilled.

In the traditional sense Muir was not a Christian, but he was re-born, in the wild, through the wilderness, and he spent most of his time there — in solitude but never alone. Among trees, cliffs, rocks and waterfalls, he revelled in a place ‘full of charming company, full of God's thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action . . .  with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity’.26 Truly a prophet of God. Like the biblical prophets he stood outside the priesthood, the institution and the structures normally thought to link God with people— not professionals (as Amos said) — not a moral interpreter — but one who speaks from a passion of strength and conviction.27

So, for many reasons, I think we have to conclude that If it was the harshness of his upbringing that drove Muir from religion to the wilderness it was nevertheless the wilderness that greatly enriched his understanding of God.

Wilderness Yesterday and Today

The relevance of all this for today’s debate on ecology and the environment must be the subject of another paper, but it is significant that Leal in his final section examines the ecotheological implications of biblical attitudes to wilderness in an attempt to move towards a theology of wilderness. Like Muir, he begins by demolishing that form of human imperialism which finds no problem with anthropocentrism and the human domination of nature. Unlike Muir he has difficulty with the idea that all of God’s creation is good which serves to underline the need to bring together the four attitudes he started with (negative, critical encounter, God’s grace and God’s good creation) and to relate them to contemporary ecology.

To do this he takes us to Australia where wilderness (whether called ‘bush’ or ‘desert’) is a determining factor in the way Australians see themselves and their country. Wilderness is responsible for the way in which the Aboriginal people have developed, with their strong sense of place and belonging, an understanding of ‘the Land’ as the abode of their ancestors and the source of their future — a place indeed where Past, Present and Future all coalesce — in contra distinction to western man’s sense of domination. So that what is ‘nothing’ to the European or the colonist, to the Aboriginal is ‘alive’ and ‘teeming with life-giving energies’ and such a spiritually oriented appraisal of the landscape may well be the way not only to save the environment but also to promote reconciliation between the two cultures. Norman Habel and his colleagues, also from the same part of the world, are saying much the same thing in The Earth Bible.

Muir’s Death

Finally, if Muir and the contemporary movement for the conservation of the wild places of the earth have much in common with the wilderness in the Bible, Muir’s death was no exception.

On a visit to his daughter, Helen, in December 1914, he went out for a walk in the wilderness but that evening he was taken ill and died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve. The previous year, in a journal, with some prescience, Muir had written, 'I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in’.28

Thus Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. (Genesis 5:24). Thus Elijah, standing by the Jordan, took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted  , , , Elijah and Elisha crossed on dry ground. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:8,11). Thus, from a different kind of wilderness, Bunyan’s Pilgrim also came with his friends to the riverside. As he went down into the water he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’ So he passed over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

© Alec Gilmore 2017