WILDERNESS (Hebr. "ḥorbah" [Jer. vii. 34; Isa. xlviii. 21], "yeshimon" [Isa. xlviii. 19; Deut. xxxii. 10; Ps. lxxviii. 40], "midbar" [very frequently], "'arabah" [generally in poetic speech and as a parallel to "midbar"], "ẓiyyah" [Ps. lxxviii. 17], "tohu" [Ps. cvii. 40; Job xii. 24; Deut. xxxii. 10], "shammah," "shemamah" [Isa. v. 9; Jer. xlii. 18; Ezek. xxxv. 7], "sharab" [Isa. xxxv. 7; R. V., "glowing sand"]):
By: Emil G. Hirsch
An examination of the Hebrew terms rendered "wilderness" or "desert" in the English versions shows that these translations are inadequate and misleading. "Ḥorbah" implies violent destruction; and it is more exactly rendered by "waste places" (Ps. cii. 7 [A. V. 6]) or "desolation" (Jer. xliv. 2). The latter term also expresses more accurately the connotation of "yeshimon" and "shammah" or "shemamah," while "tohu" conveys the idea of chaotic confusion (Jer. iv. 23; Job xxvi. 7). "'Arabah" comes nearer to the meaning of the English "desert" (Isa. xxxv. 1; Jer. li. 43); "ẓiyyah" implies the absence or dearth of water (Ps. lxiii. 2 [A. V. 1]); while the more probable rendering of "sharab" is "mirage" (see Isa. xxxv. 7, R. V., marginal reading). In so far as the Hebrew terms do not imply artificial desolation and destruction, they connote a stretch of uncultivated land suitable for grazing and occupied by nomads (Num. xiv. 33), as is clear both from the etymology of the word "midbar," and from the fact that it and its synonyms usually denote the wilderness of the wandering or Exodus. Such a midbar occasionally existed in the very midst of land under tillage (Gen. xxxvii. 22), and again was found at the borders as a transition from cultivated to uncultivated districts (Deut. iv. 43; I Sam. xvii. 28).
This "wilderness" is described as without animate occupants (Deut. xxxii. 10), or as a district where no man is found (Jer. ii. 6; ix. 1, 11; Job xxxviii. 26) and where sowing is not carried on (Jer. ii. 2). It is an abandoned stretch (Isa. xxvii. 10; comp. vi. 12, vii. 16) without protection (Ps. lv. 8 [A. V. 7]), and a thirsty land (Ezek. xix. 13; Job xxx. 3, R. V.) devoid of vegetation (Hos. ii. 3; Isa. xli. 19). These terrors play upon the fancy of the people (Isa. xxx. 6; comp. "Z. D. P. V." iii. 114 et seq.). Some parts of the wilderness are characterized as "ne'ot" (Jer. xxiii. 10), or pastures, and others as "'arabot," or dry, barren stretches (II Sam. xv. 28), or as "ḥarerim," or stony table-lands (Jer. xii. 12, xvii. 6). The wilderness is the home of wild animals ("ẓiyyim"; Isa. xiii. 21, xxxiv. 14), including wild asses (Jer. ii. 24), and thorns grow there (Judges viii. 7, 16) as well as the heather (Jer. xvii. 6. xlviii. 6).
The term "midbar" is applied to the district of the Hebrews' wanderings between the Exodus and the conquest of Palestine. This region stretched south of Palestine in or on the border of the Negeb; separate parts of it are called the wildernesses of Sin, Shur, Kadesh, and the like. The wilderness between Canaan and the Euphrates is repeatedly mentioned in prophetic writings (Ezek. xx. 35; Isa. xl. 3), and some portions of it are named in Num. xxi. 11, 13 and Judges xi. 22. The wilderness referred to in Josh. xv. 61 is that of Judah, which comprised the eastern declivity of the mountainous region toward the Dead Sea. The character of this district illustrates most strikingly the great variety of localities designated in Biblical usage as wildernesses; for in it were pastures (II Chron. xxvi. 10), caves (I Sam. xxiv. 3), and cities (Josh. xv. 61), though it contained also barren rocks and precipices. This wilderness of Judah included the wildernesses of Maon (I Sam. xxiii. 24) and Ziph (ib. xxiii. 14). Connected with it to the north were the wildernesses of Gibeah (Judges xx. 42), Michmash (I Sam. xiii. 18), Ai (Josh. viii. 15), and Beth-aven (ib. xviii. 12).