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Desert (in the Bible)

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The Hebrew words translated in the Douay Version of the Bible by "desert" or "wilderness", and usually rendered by the Vulgate desertum, "solitude", or occasionally eremus, have not the same shade of meaning as the English word desert. The word wilderness, which is more frequently used than desert of the region of the Exodus, more nearly approaches the meaning of the Hebrew, though not quite expressing it. When we speak of the desert our thoughts are naturally borne to such places as the Sahara, a great sandy waste, incapable of vegetation, impossible as a dwelling-place for men, and where no human being is found except when hurrying through as quickly as he can. No such ideas are attached to the Hebrew words for desert. Four words are chiefly used in Hebrew to express the idea:


The more general word. It is from the root dabar, "to lead" (cattle to pasture) [cf. German Trift from treiben]. Hence midbar among its other meanings has that of tracts of pasturage for flocks. So Joel 2:22: "The beautiful places of the wilderness are sprung", or literally: "The pastures of the wilderness shoot forth". So, too, the desert was not necessarily uninhabited. Thus (Isaiah 42:11) we read: "Let the desert (midbar) and the cities thereof be exalted: Cedar shall dwell in houses", or rather, "the villages that Cedar doth inhabit". Not that there were towns in the desert occupied by a stable population. The inhabitants were mostly nomads. For the desert was not a place regularly cultivated like the fields and gardens of ordinary civilized districts. Rather, it was a region in which was to be found pasturage, not rich, but sufficient for sheep and goats, and more abundant after the rainy season. The desert, too, was looked upon as the abode of wild beasts — lions (Sirach 13:23), wild asses (Job 24:5), jackals (Malachi 1:3), etc. It was not fertilized by streams of water, but springs were to be found there (Genesis 16:7), and in places cisterns to collect the rainfall. Midbar is the word generally used in the Pentateuch for the desert of the Exodus; but of the regions of the Exodus various districts are distinguished as the desert of Sin (Exodus 16:1), the desert of Sinai (Exodus 19:1), the desert of Sur (Exodus 15:22), the desert of Sin (zin) (Numbers 13:22), etc. Moreover, it is used of other districts, as in Western Palestine of the wilderness of Juda (Judges 1:16), and again in the east of the desert of Moab (Deuteronomy 2:8).


'Arabah, derived from the root 'arab, "to be arid", is another word for desert, which seems to express more than one of its natural characteristics. The word means a steppe, a desert plain; and it conveys the idea of a stretch of country, arid, unproductive, and desolate. In poetic passages it is used in parallelism with the word midbar. Thus Isaiah 35:1: "The land that was desolate [midbar] and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness ['arabah] shall rejoice"; cf. also Jeremiah 17:6, etc. Although the Septuagint frequently renders the word by eremos, it often uses other translations, as ge dipsosa and elos. The Vulgate employs the words solitudo, desertum. Very frequently the word 'arabah has a mere geographical sense. Thus it refers to the strange depression extending from the base of Mount Hermon, through the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, to the Gulf of Akabah. So, too, there are the Arboth Moab (Numbers 22:1), the Arboth Jericho (Joshua 4:13), etc., referring to the desolate districts connected with these places.


Horbah, derived from the root harab, "to lie waste", is translated in the Septuagint by the words eremos, eremosis, eremia. In the Vulgate are found the renderings ruinœ, solitudo, desolatio. A strange translation occurs in Psalm 101:7. The word in the Greek is oikopedon and in the Vulgate domicilium; and the passage in which the word occurs is rendered in the Douay version: "I am like a night raven in the house". St. Jerome, however, in his translation of the Psalm direct from the Hebrew employs the word solitudinum, which seems more correct: "I am like a night raven of the wastes". The lexicon of Gesenius gives as the first meaning of horbah, "dryness"; then as a second meaning, "a desolation", "ruins". A combination of these senses seems to have been the reason why in the poetical books the word is used of the wilderness. The word conveys the idea of ruin or desolation caused by hostile lands, as when God says to Jerusalem (Es., v, 14): "I will make thee desolate"; or when the Psalmist, referring to the punishment inflicted by Jehovah, says (Psalm 9:7): "The enemy are consumed, left desolate for ever".


Jeshimon, derived from jasham, "to be desolate". It was looked upon as a place without water, thus Isaiah 43:19: "Behold I shall set up streams in the desert [jeshimon]". It was a waste, a wilderness. In poetical passages it is used as a parallel to midbar, cf. Deuteronomy 32:10; Psalm 78:40: "How often did ye provoke him in the wilderness [midbar], and grieve him in the desert [jeshimon]?" Frequently it is used of the wilderness of the Exodus. Besides such uses of the word, it seems when used with the article often to have assumed the force of a proper name. In such cases it refers at times to the wilderness of the Exodus (cf. Psalm 78:40; 106:14; etc.). Parts of the waste region about the Dead Sea are called the jeshimon; and to the north-east of the same sea there is a place called Beth-Jeshimoth (cf. Numbers 33:49), where the Israelites are said to have encamped at the end of the wanderings. These are the principal words used for desert in the Bible. There are, however, others less frequently used, only one or two of which can be mentioned here: such as tohu, used in Genesis 1:2: "the earth was void". In Deuteronomy 32:10, it is used in parallelism with midbar, and in Psalm 107:40 it refers to the desert directly. Such also is çiyyah, which means, literally, dryness, but refers at times to the desert: so, 'areç çiyyah, "a land of drought", or "a desert" (Hosea 2:5).

Biblical deserts

A word may be said here concerning the chief deserts referred to in the Bible. Perhaps the most interesting is that of Exodus. In the Pentateuch this tract is treated as a whole as "the desert", but, as a rule, special parts of it are referred to, as the desert of Sin, the desert of Sinai, the desert of Cades, the desert of Pharan, etc. Books have been written to discuss the geography of this region. Suffice it to say that it comprises the ground over which the Israelites travelled from their crossing of the Red Sea till their arrival in the Promised Land. We do not enter into the question raised by modern critics as to whether the geography of the Exodus had different meanings in different parts of the Pentateuch. The desert of Juda, too, plays an important part in the Bible. It lies to the west of the 'arabah, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea. To it belong the deserts of Engaddi, that of Thecua, and that of Jericho, near the city of the same name. To the east of Palestine are the deserts of Arabia, Moab, and the desert of Idumea, near the Dead Sea. We are told (Exodus 3:1) that Moses fed the flocks of Jethro, and led them to the interior parts of the desert. This desert was in the land of Madian, close to the Red Sea, and in it was Mount Horeb, which St. Jerome says was the same as Sinai. The desert to which David fled from Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 23:14) was the desert of Ziph, which lies south of the Dead Sea and Hebron. John the Baptist lived and taught in the desert of Judea, west of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, near Jericho. Finally, the scene of Christ's temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), of which St. Mark adds (1:13): "He was with wild beasts", was most likely in the 'arabah to the west of the Jordan. But this is only speculation.


SMITH, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (London, 1897); CHEYNE, Encyclopedia Biblica (London, 1899); HASTINGS. Dict. of the Bible; VIGOUROUX, Dict. de la Bible.

About this page

APA citation. Howlett, J. (1908). Desert (in the Bible). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Howlett, James. "Desert (in the Bible)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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