Desert (Gr. ἔρημος; see Rechenberg, De voce ἔρημος, Lips. 1680), a word which is sparingly employed in the A.V. to translate four Hebrew terms, and even in the rendering of these is not employed uniformly. The same term is sometimes translated "wilderness," sometimes "desert," and once "south." In one place we find a Hebrew term treated as a proper name, and in another translated as an appellative. This gives rise to considerable indefiniteness in many passages of Scripture, and creates confusion in attempts at interpretation. But, besides all this, the ordinary meaning attached to the English word "desert" is not that which can be legitimately attached to any of the Hebrew words it is employed to represent. We usually apply it to "a sterile sandy plain, without inhabitants, without water, and without vegetation" such, for example, as the desert of Sahara, or that which is overlooked by the Pyramids, and with which many travelers are familiar. No such region was known to the sacred writers, nor is any such once referred to in Scripture. It will consequently be necessary to explain in this article the several words which our translators have rendered "desert," and to show that, as used in the historical books, they denote definite localities. SEE TOPOGRAPHICAL TERMS.
1. MIDBAR, מדּבָּר (Sept. ἔρημος, and ἄνυδρος γῆ), is of very frequent occurrence, and is usually rendered "wilderness" (Ge 14:6, etc.), though in some places "desert" (Ex 3:1; Ex 5:1, etc.), and in Ps 75:6, "south." It properly designates pastureground, being derived from דָּבִר, dabar' "to drive," significant of the pastoral custom of driving the flocks out to feed in the morning, and home again at night; and it means a wide, open tract used for pasturage, q. d. a "common;" thus, in Joe 2:22, "The pastures of the desert shall flourish." It is the name most commonly applied to the country lying between Palestine and Egypt, including the peninsula of Sinai, through which the Israelites wandered (Ge 21:14,21; Ex 4:27; Ex 19:2; Jos 1:6, etc.). Now the peninsula of Sinai is a mountainous region; in early spring its scanty soil produces grass and green herbs, and, with the exception of one little plain on the north side of the great mountain-chain, there is no sand whatever. This small plain is expressly distinguished from the rest by the name Debbet er-Ramleh, "plain of sand" (Robinson, Bib. Res. 1:77; Porter, Handbook for Syria and Pal. p. 2 sq.). On the other hand, in this whole region streams of water are not found except in winter and after heavy rain; fountains are very rare, and there are no settled inhabitants. Stanley, accordingly, has shown that "sand is the exception and not the rule of the Arabian Desert" of the peninsula of Sinai (Palest. p. 8, 9, 64). As to the other features of a desert, certainly the peninsula of Sinai is no plain, but a region extremely variable in height, and diversified even at this day by oases and valleys of verdure and vegetation, and by frequent wells, which were all probably far more abundant in those earlier times than they now are. With regard to the Wilderness of the Wanderings — for which Midbar or grazing-tract (almost our "prairie"), is almost invariably used — this term is therefore most appropriate; for we must never forget that the Israelites had flocks and herds with them during the whole of their passage to the Promised Land. They had them when they left Egypt (Ex 10:26; Ex 12:38); they had them at Hazeroth, the middle point of the wanderings (Nu 11:22), and some of the tribes possessed them in large numbers immediately before the transit of the Jordan (Nu 32:1). In speaking of the Wilderness of the Wanderings the word "desert" occurs as the rendering of Midbar, in Ex 3:1; Ex 5:3; Ex 19:2; Nu 33:15-16; and in more than one of these it is evidently employed for the sake of euphony merely. SEE EXODE.
Midbar is also used to denote the wilderness of Arabia; but generally with the article חִמַּדבָּר, "the desert" (1Ki 9:18). The wilderness of Arabia is not sandy; it is a vast undulating plain, parched and barren during summer and autumn, but in winter and early spring yielding good pasture to the flocks of the Bedawin that roam over it. Hence the propriety of the expression pastures of the wilderness (Ps 65:13; Joe 1:19; compare Lu 15:4). Thus it is that the Arabian tribes retreat into their deserts on the approach of the autumnal rains, and when spring has ended and the droughts commence, return to the lands of rivers and mountains, in search of the pastures which the deserts no longer afford. It may also be observed that even deserts in the summer time are interspersed with fertile spots and clumps of herbage (Hacket's Illustration of Scripture, p. 25). The Midbar of Judah is the bleak mountainous region lying along the western shore of the Dead Sea, where David fed his father's flocks, and hid from Saul (1Sa 17:28; 1Sa 26:2 sq.). The meaning of Midbar in both these instances is thus likewise a district without settled inhabitants, without streams of water, but adapted for pasturage. It is the country of nomads, as distinguished from that of the agricultural and settled people (Isa 35:1; Isa 1; Isa 2; Jer 4:11). The Greek equivalents in the New Test. are ἔρημος and ἐρημία. John preached in the "wilderness," i.e. the open, unpopulated country, and our Lord fed the multitudes in the "wilderness" or wild region east of the Dead Sea (Mt 3:3; Mt 15:33; Lu 15:4). SEE WILDERNESS.
Midbar is most frequently used for those tracts of waste land which lie beyond the cultivated ground in the immediate neighborhood of the towns and villages of Palestine, and which are a very familiar feature to the traveler in that country. In spring these tracts are covered with a rich green verdure of turf, and small shrubs, and herbs of various kinds. But at the end of summer the herbage withers, the turf dries up and is powdered thick with the dust of the chalky soil, and the whole has certainly a most dreary aspect. An example of this is furnished by the hills through which the path from Bethany to Jericho pursues its winding descent. In the spring, so abundant is the pasturage of these hills that they are the resort of the flocks from Jerusalem on the one hand and Jericho on the other, and even from the Arabs on the other side of Jordan. Even in the month of September, though the turf is only visible on close inspection, large flocks of goats and sheep may be seen browsing, scattered over the slopes, or stretched out in a long, even line like a regiment of soldiers. A striking example of the same thing, and of the manner in which this waste pasture-land gradually melts into the uncultivated fields, is seen in making one's way up through the mountains of Benjamin, due west, from Jericho to Mukhmas or Jeba. These Midbars seem to have borne the name of the town to which they were most contiguous, for example, Bethaven (in the region last referred to); Ziph, Maon, and Paran, in the south of Judah; Gibeon, Jeruel, etc., etc. SEE VILLAGE.
In the poetical books "desert" is found as the translation of Midbar in De 32:10; Job 24:5; Isa 21:1; Jer 25:24. SEE MIDBAR.
2. ARABAH' (עֲרָבָה, Sept. ῎Αραβα and δυσμή), from עָרִב, arab', to dry up (Gesenius, Thes. p. 1060), i.e. parched (" desert" in Isa 35:1,6; xl, 3; 41:19; 2:3; Jer 2:6; Jer 17:6; Jer 1; Jer 12; Eze 47:8; elsewhere usually "plain"), which is either applied to any and tracts in general, or specially to the Arabah (as it is still called), or lone desert tract or plain of the Jordan and Dead Sea, shut in by mountains, and extending from the lake of Tiberias to the Elanitic Gulf; called by the Greeks Αὐλών (Euseb. Onomast.). The more extended application of the name by the Hebrews is successfully traced by professor Robinson from Gesenius: "In connection with the Red Sea and Elath" (De 1:1; De 2:8). "As extending to the lake of Tiberias" (Jos 12:3; 2Sa 4:7; 2Ki 25:4). "Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea" (Jos 3:16; Jos 12:3; De 4:49). "The arboth (plains) of Jericho" (Jos 5:10; 2Ki 25:5). "Plains (arboth) of Moab," i.e. opposite Jericho, probably pastured by the Moabites, though not within their proper territory (De 24:1,8; Nu 22:1). In the East, wide, extended plains are usually liable to drought, and consequently to barrenness. Hence the Hebrew language describes a plan, a desert, and an unfruitful waste by this same word. Occasionally, indeed, this term is employed to denote any dry or sterile region, as in Job 24:5, and Isa 40:3. It is thus used, however, only in poetry, and is equivalent to Midbar, to which it is the poetic parallel in Isa 35:1: "The wilderness (Midbar) shall be glad for them, and the desert (Arabah) shall rejoice, etc.;" also in 41:19. Midbar may be regarded as describing a region in relation to its use by man — a pastoral region; Arabah, in relation to its physical qualities — a wilderness (Stanley, Palest. p. 481). But in the vast majority of cases in which it occurs in the Bible, Arabah is the specific name given either to the whole, or a part of the deep valley extending from Tiberias to the Gulf of Akabah. With the article הָעֲרָבָה, it denotes, in the historical portions of Scripture, the whole of the valley, or at least that part of it included in the territory of the Israelites (De 1:7; De 3:17; Jos 12:1; etc.); when the word is applied to other districts, or to distinct sections of the valley, the article is omitted, and the plural number is used. Thus we find "the plains of Moab" (עִרבוֹת, Nu 22:1, etc.); "the plains of Jericho" (Jos 4:13); "the plains of the wilderness" (2Sa 17:16). The southern section of this sterile valley still retains its ancient name, el-Arabah (Robinson, Bib. Res. 1:169; 2:186; Stanley, Palest. p. 84). It appears, therefore, that this term, when used, as it invariably is in the topographical records of the Bible, with the definite article, means that very depressed and enclosed region — the deepest and the hottest chasm in the world — the sunken valley north and south of the Dead Sea, but more particularly the former. True, in the present depopulated and neglected state of Palestine, the Jordan Valley is as and desolate a region as can be met with, but it was not always so. On the contrary, we have direct testimony to the fact that when the Israelites were flourishing, and later in the Roman times, the case was emphatically the reverse. Jericho (q.v.), "the city of palm-trees," at the lower end of the valley, Bethshean (q.v.) at the upper, and Phasaelis in the center, were famed both in Jewish and profane history for the luxuriance of their vegetation (Joseph. Ant. 18:2, 2; 16:5, 2). When the abundant water- resources of the valley were properly husbanded and distributed, the tropical heat caused not barrenness, but tropical fertility, and here grew the balsam, the sugar-cane, and other plants requiring great heat, but also rich soil, for their culture. Arabah, in the sense of the Jordan Valley, is translated by the word "desert" only in Eze 47:8. In a more general sense of waste, deserted country-a meaning easily suggested by the idea of excessive heat contained in the root — "desert," as the rendering of Arabah, occurs in the prophets and poetical books; as Isa 35:1,6; Isa 40:3; Isa 41:19; Isa 51:3; Jer 2:6; Jer 5:6; Jer 17:6; Jer 1; Jer 12; but this general sense is never found in the historical books. In these, to repeat once more, Arabah always denotes the Jordan Valley, the Ghor of the modern Arabs. SEE ARABAH.
3. YESHIMON', ישַׁימוֹן (Sept. ἄνυδρος and ἔρημος), from יָשָׁם, to lie waste ("wilderness," De 32:10; Ps 48:7; "solitary," Ps 107:4), in the historical books is used with the definite article, apparently to denote the waste tracts on both sides of the Dead Sea. In all these cases it is treated as a proper name in the A. V.: thus in Nu 21:20, "The top of Pisgah, which looketh towards Jeshimon." See also BETH-JESIMOTH. Without the article it occurs in a few passages of poetry, in the following of which it is rendered "desert:" Ps 78:40; Ps 106:14; Isa 43:19-20. This term expresses a greater extent of uncultivated country than the others (1Sa 23:19,24; Isa 43:19-20). It is especially applied to that desert of peninsular Arabia in which the Israelites sojourned under Moses (Nu 21:20; Nu 23:28). This was the most terrible of the deserts with which the Israelites were acquainted, and the only real desert in their immediate neighborhood. It is 'described under ARABIA, as is also that Eastern desert extending from the eastern border of the country beyond Judaea to the Euphrates. It is emphatically called "the Desert," without any proper name, in Ex 23:31; De 11:24. To this latter the term is equally applicable in the following poetical passages: De 32:10; Ps 68:7; Ps 78:40; Ps 106:14. It would appear from the reference in Deuteronomy — "waste, howling wilderness," that this word was intended to be more expressive of utter wasteness than any of the others. In 1Sa 23:19; 1Sa 26:1, it evidently means the wilderness of Judah. SEE JESHIMON.
4. CHORBAH', חָרבָּה (Sept. ἔρημος, etc.; A.V. usually "waste," "desolate," etc.), from חָרִב, to be dried up, and hence desolate, is a more general term denoting a dry place (Isa 48:21), and hence desolation (Ps 9:6), or concretely desolate (Le 26:31,33; Isa 49:14; Isa 64:10; Jer 7:34; Jer 22:5; Jer 25:9,11,18; Jer 27:12; Jer 44:2,6,22; Eze 5:14; Eze 25:13; Eze 29:9-10; Eze 25:4; Eze 28:8), or ruins (Eze 36:10,33; Eze 38:12; Mal 1:4; Isa 58:12; Isa 61:4). It is generally applied to what has been rendered desolate by man or neglect (Ezr 9:9; Ps 109:10; Isa 44:26; Isa 51:3; Isa 52:9; Jer 49:13; Eze 26:20; Eze 23:24,27; Eze 36:4; Da 9:2). It is employed in Job 3:14, to denote buildings that speedily fall to ruin (comp. Isa 5:17, the ruined houses of the rich). The only passage where it expresses a natural waste or "wilderness" is Isa 48:21, where it refers to that of Sinai. It does not occur in any historical passage, and is rendered "desert" only in Ps 102:6; Isa 48:21; Eze 13:4.
5. The several deserts or wildernesses mentioned in Scripture (besides the above) are the following, which will be found under their respective names:
(1.) The Desert of Shut or Etham (Nu 33:8; Ex 13:17; Ex 15:22);
(2.) the Desert of Paran (Nu 10:12; Nu 13:3);
(3.) the Desert of Sinai (Exodus 19);
(4.) the Desert of Sin (Ex 16:6);
(5.) the Desert of Zin (Nu 20:1) — these are probably only different parts of the great Arabian Desert, distinguished by separate proper names;
(6.) the Desert of Judah, or Judaea (Psalm 68, in the title; Lu 1:80);
(7.) the Desert of Ziph (1Sa 23:14-15);
(8.) the Desert of Engedi (Jos 15:62); (9.) the Desert of Carmel (Jos 15:55); (10.) the Desert of Maon (1Sa 23:24); (11.) the Desert of Tekoa (2Ch 20:20) — these are probably only parts of the Desert of Judah;
(12.) the Desert of Jericho, separating the Mount of Olives from the city of Jericho (Jer 52:8);
(13.) the Desert of Beth-Aven seems to be a part of Mount Ephraim (Jos 18:12);
(14.) the Desert of Damascus (1Ki 19:15) is the same as the Desert Syria, where Tadmor was built (1Ki 9:18).
6. "Desert" or "wilderness" is also the symbol in Scripture of temptation, solitude, and persecution (Isa 27:10; Isa 33:9). The figure is sometimes emblematical of spiritual things, as in Isa 41:19; also in Isa 32:15, where it refers to nations in which there was no knowledge of God or of divine truth, that they should be enlightened and made to produce fruit unto holiness. A desert is mentioned as the symbol of the Jewish Church and people, when they had forsaken their God (Isa 40:3); it is also spoken of with reference to the conversion of the Gentiles (Isa 35:1). The solitude of the desert is a subject often noticed (Job 38:26; Jer 9:2). The desert was considered the abode of evil spirits. or at least their occasional resort (Mt 12:43; Lu 11:24), an opinion held also by the heathen (Virg. AEn. 6:27).