Deserts and the Divine

It is interesting that the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, are all desert-born faiths that evolved from a small group of desert pastoralists under the leadership of a herder named Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) … According to a traditional proverb of the nomadic Berbers, “The desert is the Garden of Allah, from which the Lord of the faithful removed all superfluous human and animal life, so that there might be one place where He can walk in peace.”

The Bible records that Moses met the Lord in a burning desert bush and received the Ten Commandments atop a desert mountain. John the Baptist, a prophet in both Christianity and Islam, is reported to have preached in the desert wilderness near the Dead Sea, where he famously subsisted on a diet of locusts and wild honey.

According to the Gospels, after being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus spent 40 days and nights fasting in the Judean desert. During this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him, unsuccessfully – a demonstration of Jesus’ victory over temptation where the first man and woman, (Adam and Eve) had failed.

Long before that, the Negev desert in southern Israel was the scene of many events of significance in Bible history. For example, Issac and Jacob lived for some time in the Negev as recorded in Genesis 24:62; 37:1. After the Exodus out of Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the southern-most part of the Sinai Peninsula, then made their way to Kadesh Barnea, a place bordering the Wilderness of Paran in the Sinai Peninsula and the Wilderness of Zin the Negev highlands (Numbers 13:21, 26). Their wilderness journey ended when they crossed the Jordan River near Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem.

The Zin desert, also referred to as the ‘Wilderness of Kadesh’ in southern Israel. Photo: Ein Ovdat

Scholars speculate about the role of the desert environment in the origins of monotheism. Some suggest that the vast openness of the landscape served to produce a unifying vision of theology. Others speculate that the unobstructed view of clear night sky vivid with stars called forth the idea of a single deity. Still other scholars look to the sociology of desert pastoral nomads … powerful patriarchal clan elders may have suggested a similar divine pattern. The notion of emptiness was important to … many desert monks: the process of becoming emptied out, a sense of divinity as spacious and beyond language, the power of silence and solitude to transform the soul.

The towering presence of deserts can be seen in this image of the Colorado National Park which has the tallest dunes in all of North America. Photo: Jonathan Irish.

Further Study
Sue Ellen Campbell, The Face of the Earth, University of California Press, 2011. Chapter 4 – Desert Places, Desert Lives.

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