I have driven through the Judean wilderness east of Jerusalem where Jesus spent his 40 days' fasting and wrestling with temptation. Not sure if I have ever got out and walked there (it is in the West Bank), but from the amazing view when I flew over this region on a low approach to Tel Aviv, I suspect it would be as inhospitable as the Negev wilderness in the south.
In the course of my exodus research, I have spent many weeks in the Negev, and have to say I find the wilderness confronting. I prefer a land flowing with milk and honey (grass and flowers, hence bees and cows!), so I was thrilled with the Northern Galilee region. To me, wilderness is something that should be 'fixed' as also the prophets seem to propose:
I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Isa 41:18-20)
But wilderness, as a opportunity for complete isolation and a humbler communion with God, is worth visiting when the opportunity presents. With all evidence of human activity absent (except the vehicle you are driving) and with a rare view of the horizon and the whole panoply of stars, we become more aware of the miracle of our tiny earth-ship passing through unfathomable space. The lack of shelter highlights our vulnerability to the elements, awakening appreciation for those gifts of God to humanity: water, vegetation, and a gentler climate.
Wilderness, so the 'myth' goes, is the birthplace of monotheism. At some stage the ancient nomadic people became convinced that there could only be one God, and brought this faith into the pagan mainstream. But there was nonetheless plenty of paganism in the wilderness regions, as I found out from my April 2004 trip:
"The anthropomorphic cult is evident everywhere, for ancient people have erected and worshiped every stone that has even the slightest appearance of a face or a human form. Sometimes they enhance the resemblance by touching up eyes or nose. I am starting to get the idea about the ‘cult of rocks’ that is so apparent in the Negev. In the desert there is nothing to see but the landscape around and the rocks on the ground. Children would have had nothing but rocks to entertain themselves. Just like the ancient people, we constantly look down as we walk, not only because the way is rough but also, strangely, to examine the rocks for some relief from the boredom of the landscape. Rocks are all there are to occupy our minds. We are always scanning the ground and pick up any rock that has a resemblance to a living thing, just as the desert people must always have done. We show each other any rock that has an interesting shape or flints that have been tooled (though there are too many of these to examine them all). I am really beginning to understand why it is that the ancient people of this area were likely to erect and anoint standing stones, build ‘heaps of witness’ (gal-ed) and worship graven images. I caught myself thinking that if I had lived then and found a particularly striking anthropomorphic rock I would stand it up in my hut in pride of place, firstly as a natural ‘work of art’ … but how easily it could become a shrine!"
Rather (I prefer to believe) monotheism came from direct revelation to Abraham, and in that tradition we stand all these thousands of years later. It is a precious and also somewhat fragile worldview, but oh the comfort and clarity it brings! One God means one source of truth, one purpose to life, one hope for humanity, one standard for good, one plan for the world. The One God is doing all the hard work in the universe; our part is small: believe, pray, obey.
From our first reading on the second Sunday in Lent):
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."… And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:1-6)
Photo was taken near Masada in Israel