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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 1027 [A. V. 6]) or "desolation" (Jer 44:2). The latter term also expresses more accurately the connotation of "yeshimon" and "shammah" or "shemamah," while "tohu" conveys the idea of chaotic confusion (Jer 4:23; Job 26:7). "'Arabah" comes nearer to the meaning of the English "desert" (Isa 35:1; Jer 51:43); "ẓiyyah" implies the absence or dearth of water (Ps 632 [A. V. 1]); while the more probable rendering of "sharab" is "mirage" (see Isa 35:7, 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 14:33), 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 37:22), and again was found at the borders as a transition from cultivated to uncultivated districts (Deut 4:43; 1Sam 17:28).

This "wilderness" is described as without animate occupants (Deut 32:10), or as a district where no man is found (Jer 2:6; ix. 1, 11; Job 38:26) and where sowing is not carried on (Jer 2:2). It is an abandoned stretch (Isa 27:10; comp. vi. 12, vii. 16) without protection (Ps 558 [A. V. 7]), and a thirsty land (Ezek 19:13; Job 30:3, R. V.) devoid of vegetation (Hos 2:3; Isa 41:19). These terrors play upon the fancy of the people (Isa 30:6; comp. "Z. D. P. V." iii. 114 et seq.). Some parts of the wilderness are characterized as "ne'ot" (Jer 23:10), or pastures, and others as "'arabot," or dry, barren stretches (2 Sam 15:28), or as "ḥarerim," or stony table-lands (Jer 12:12, xvii. 6). The wilderness is the home of wild animals ("ẓiyyim"; Isa 13:21, xxxiv. 14), including wild asses (Jer 2:24), and thorns grow there (Jdg 8:7, 16) as well as the heather (Jer 17:6. 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 20:35; Isa 40:3), and some portions of it are named in Num 21:11, 13 and Jdg 11:22. The wilderness referred to in Josh 15:61 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 (2Chr 26:10), caves (1Sam 24:3), and cities (Josh 15:61), though it contained also barren rocks and precipices. This wilderness of Judah included the wildernesses of Maon (1Sam 23:24) and Ziph (ib. xxiii. 14). Connected with it to the north were the wildernesses of Gibeah (Jdg 20:42), Michmash (1Sam 13:18), Ai (Josh 8:15), and Beth-aven (ib. xviii. 12).

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
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