The Meaning of the Wilderness

Man of Sorrows, by William Dyce, 1860.

It is characteristic of God in Scripture to lead chosen people into the isolation and barrenness of the wilderness or desert.1 In general, the idea of nomadic life as morally pure and urban life as corrupt is thematic.2 This makes for an uneasy contrast with the post-industrial trend towards urbanization, efficiency, and relative comfort. It’s important to know, then, what it is about the wilderness that God favors, so that we don’t run the risk of distancing ourselves from God today.

In asking this, we cannot sweep aside the fact that God’s desire to gather a people into a holy city or kingdom, set apart for himself, is equally attested to in Scripture. Therefore, in this same tradition, it cannot be that there is something “evil” per se about cities. Besides, many of us find it necessary to nurture spiritual growth within the busy rush and plenitude of urban life. All of this urges us to know what is essential to the wilderness experience, and what its intended effects are.

The theological meaning of the wilderness theme “is unusually rich,” with proposed themes ranging from positive divine discipline, to proof of God’s providential care, and the devotion, or lack thereof, returned to him by his chosen people3. Cardinal Ratzinger once asserted that the only goal of the Exodus from Egypt is that of worshiping God according to God’s own specifications: Even the land is promised only so that the people would be free to worship, and the law represents an interior or spiritual land without which the physical land would hold no meaning.4 Another theologian points to the development of a relationship between God and his people, the key to which is the development of trust through communication that is facilitated by the solitude and isolation of the desert.5 The New Testament offers much support for the latter meaning, as the word used for “desert” can also refer to an abandoned or thinly populated area—one sought out by Jesus and disturbed by the tempter, for example—and the New Testament tends to interpret the Old Testament wilderness experiences as times of grace and closeness to God marked by disobedience. Indeed, the wilderness seems to have everything to do with relationship and, I would argue, that worship and the law have just as much to do with relationship and building trust.

This essay will propose a holistic explanation beginning with an examination of the wilderness itself, what it is, and why God characteristically leads people into it. A possibly surprising source, modern psychology, will then shed further light on this exegesis: namely that “attachment theory” makes clearer the changes an individual undergoes in this experience, why it is important, and how it can go wrong. I will also consider here whatever potential threats post-industrial society may pose. Finally, there are some practical suggestions offered which may be of use here for the contemporary person.

The Wilderness Has Two Faces
Some scholars mistakenly reduce the wilderness experience to a time of mere testing or purgation,6 but what is readily apparent in the Old Testament is that there are two reasons for venturing into the wilderness: either one is running away from one’s problems into what is seen as a safe haven, or one is driven against one’s will into what appears quite inhospitable and dangerous. These two faces of the wilderness can alternate within a given story, sometimes inseparably.

In two stories, paralleling one another to a remarkable degree, the two aspects can be easily separated. This simplicity makes for an easier analysis of the themes, which can then be generalized to other wilderness experiences. For these reasons, we begin with the parallel stories of Moses and Hagar.7 Incidental themes of slavery and abuse tie the stories together, as do geographic locations. For example, Sarah did to her Egyptian slave what the Egyptian slaves would later do to her offspring. But there are more important parallels.

Moses and Hagar each entered the wilderness twice. First, they ran away from oppressive situations and family conflicts involving ambiguous roles. Moses ran from certain punishment for murder, after finding himself caught between his Jewish heritage and his royal Egyptian status gained through his adoption. Hagar, impregnated in place of the master’s wife, had been abused by Sarah, so she ran away into the wilderness. In both cases, Hagar and Moses encountered God, understood God by new names, received a promise, and were told to return to their difficult situations (Gen. 16 and Ex. 2-3). Hagar returned to be a slave, and Moses returned to take his place with the enslaved Israelites, and to free them from Egypt.

What is the meaning of this initial wilderness experience? Hagar was found by a spring of water, and Moses, even better off, was married and tending sheep before his theophany. It was hardly a time of purgation for either of them. The wilderness has been called a place of “temporary escape, transformation” in light of this first entrance.8 The wilderness, not yet dangerous, is, however, an isolated, quiet place. It allowed God a chance to have a private conversation, giving both Moses and Hagar a first glimpse of God and his plan for them.

Secondly, both Hagar and Moses were driven into the wilderness a second time, but this time the wilderness was more threatening than inviting, and provisions were packed before setting out (Gen. 21 and Ex. 12). It became “a location outside of civilization, where entire nations can live at risk with God {…in} the borderland between civilization and chaos.”9 Also, when Hagar and Moses were driven out by their original oppressors, God was evidently the orchestrator, verbally directing Abraham (Gen. 21: 12-13) and hardening Pharoah’s heart (Ex. 4:21 and 11:10). In both cases, God used family and political conflicts in order to separate people that trusted in his promise.10 Trusting in that promise and love for God developed through various life-threatening trials, and the community tightened its ties precisely because all other help and distractions were absent in the wilderness. Speaking of this second face of the wilderness, “In the wilderness, everything becomes 110 percent what it is. Without all the usual background noise and distraction, there is nothing to dilute reality. All of the ordinary filters do not work.”11 Another exegete put it this way:

Wilderness is life beyond redemption, but short of consummation; but the former seems ineffective, and the latter only a mirage. The promise has been spoken, but who can live by words alone? The hope has been proclaimed, but the horizon keeps disappearing in the sandstorms. And so trust in God often turns to recalcitrance and resentment. Faith erodes with the dunes. Commandments collapse into the disorder that shapes daily life. And judgment is invited in to share one’s tattered tent.12

More often, the two faces of the wilderness alternate ambivalently within a given story. For example, Israel left the slavery of Egypt willingly, but they were also driven through the Red Sea by fear of Pharaoh’s chariots. The wilderness was a safe haven from one kind of danger, but it was immediately inhospitable, too. Israel’s wandering inseparably walked the line between intimacy with God such as no one had ever experienced and, on the other hand, temptations, insecurity, and discomfort. The wilderness is not the kind of place one normally chooses for oneself, but it is God’s favored place from which to show his care and concern. It is a place that one enters by cutting off one’s past in an attempt to make a fresh start, and one is utterly vulnerable. God’s preferential love for the poor combines with the ripeness of the occasion, and the time is usually one of deepened understanding about the mind of God. Regardless of the individual outcome, we can argue that God desires that effect.13

Something brief should be said about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations reported in the Gospels14 to present a specifically Christian tradition on the subject. One of the most important points to be made is that Jesus did what Israel failed to do. After forty days of trusting God in the absence of food, he would not perform a miracle to produce food, if it meant asserting himself over and against the Father. At this point, Jesus had already “walked away—away from all he had known and been—into the desert” driven by the Spirit and uniting both faces of the wilderness into one experience…, so the devil’s temptation to earthly authority had already been countered by Jesus’ mere entrance into the desert.15 It appears that the essential temptation is simply to “do it all, have it all, control it all” in opposition to the Father.16 Jesus suffered temptation and learned a better understanding of who he was by experience17 He began his public ministry after being strengthened in these ways, and his disciples are meant to live just as he did.18 Many exegetes note the tension between Jesus’ temptations and his later activity: (1) multiplying loaves of bread, (2) taking the plunge into the abyss of death with trust that the Father would save him, and (3) becoming king of heaven. For our purposes, this tension highlights that the real temptation was to grasp for his identity, to be suspicious of the Father, and to try to take what he already knew he was19 in a manner that was outside of the Father’s plan and timetable.20

One constant between both “faces,” as I have termed them, is this: Entering the wilderness always means leaving one’s whole life behind. If entering the wilderness is one’s own choice, God takes advantage of the moment, but he characteristically sends people back into the very problems from which they are running. If the wilderness experience is orchestrated by God, it leads to a more profound transformation. The more radical the vulnerability of the latter situation, modern psychology proposes, may explain the difference.

Human psychology of relationships
Every apparent purpose of the wilderness—right worship, learning the law, purgation from one’s previous life, dependency on God, etc.—is summed up by the one purpose of growing in one’s relationship with God. And, as attachment theory holds, something like a wilderness experience is what it takes to grow in all attachments because, under normal circumstances, activities such as collecting food, taking care of personal hygiene, and even pursuing hobbies, seem more urgent than seeking proximity with others. Stress is the normal requirement to trigger the attachment processes.21 By “processes,” psychologists refer to behaviors directed toward feelings of proximity to, and security in, another. Successful bids for such feelings are of the essence in healthy, secure attachments.22 In other words, in order for God to give individuals or peoples the choice whether or not to trust him, he must present them with a moment of crisis, and, since he wants them to seek help from the Invisible, he’d better remove all other help first.

Stressful situations are not a game but a matter of freeing people to become themselves in truth. Psychologists have found that children with secure attachments to their caregivers are more willing to explore their environments, more cooperative with caregivers, and less fussy, more independent, more responsive, more empathetic, more resilient and self-confident, more moral, and more sociable among a staggering array of other traits.23 They call the root of these symptoms a “secure attachment” to one’s caregivers. New research is always providing evidence of further benefits. All of these seem to deal with the right use of freedom, or coming into one’s own identity.

It has also been argued that this wide array of benefits may result from one’s “meta-representation” or “how the mind sees itself” and other minds.24 More than empathy, meta-representation is about mentally engaging one’s own mind, and the minds of others, and it may be “the crucial underlying mechanism of secure attachment,” meaning that it is caused by, and allows for greater nurturing and respectful relationships, according to many researchers to date.25 Respectful relationships alone cultivate one’s ability to see one’s own mind, and that of others, making such “sight” a habit of mind, a mindful way of being in the world.26 Speaking in mechanical terms, the brain circuitry that regulates one’s own emotions also serves as a reliable bridge to understand the worlds of others.27 This circuitry also allows a person to see his mind objectively, building what is called the “narrator function” of his mind.28 The Judeo-Christian tradition is nothing if not highly narrative29 and, therefore, according to this theory, requiring the utmost secure attachment to the source of objectivity for such a narrative tradition. In sum, we can say that insight into the mind of God—the one alone to whom we can go for ultimate security and proximity—is theoretically the only way to be secure. We best develop this ability through stressful occurrences in our lives. This appears to be the purpose of the wilderness.

It is interesting to note that those who have had insecure attachments to their own parents will nurture secure attachments in their children to the same degree that they can tell their early life experiences as a coherent story.30 The faults of one’s early relationships can be overcome if one develops a coherent view of oneself, and others, later in life; in other words, if one develops “mindsight.” Normally, this “mindsight” develops in communication with others. Developing “mindsight” about God is exactly what Israel claims to have done: The Lord proved himself trustworthy repeatedly, although he punished Israel for all her offenses; although she was disobedient and unfaithful; and although sometimes it appeared that he had led her into the wilderness just to let her die of thirst or hunger. Through a group process of remembrance, Israel did exactly what is required to overcome an insecure attachment. She developed a coherent narrative to explain God’s treatment of her as one integral whole including laws, events, the origins of the universe, and the ultimate purpose of creation.

The Transformation in the Wilderness
Let me reiterate: this transformation is most profound in those wilderness experiences orchestrated by God, rather than by one’s own choice. Wilderness experiences do not always have to be a time of trial and pain. In fact, they might be an oasis from some form of abuse. Wilderness experiences can be a time of transformation resulting from the quiet and solitude of the wilderness, where there is room for God to speak. In Scripture, it would appear that he always takes advantage of these situations, transforming us by way of drawing us into a relationship with him. This always involves risk and pain.31 Aside from leaving behind a whole way of life, we are made for relationships, and even abusive ones are difficult to leave behind. A recent article on “The Pain of Exclusion” notes that ostracism—probably because it threatens all our basic needs—registers neurologically in the same way as physical pain, sometimes intensely, even when we do not know or agree with those who ostracize us.32 In the wilderness, we have no one but God to seek out for proximity and security.

Isolation does more than ensure that we have no one to turn to besides God. The uncomfortable fact is that God often waits to answer prayers until the situation becomes quite dire: lack of food, lack of water, lack of heirs until one is past the age of fertility, raising people from the dead, and the list goes on. Why does he wait, if his purpose is to increase our trust in him? At least a partial answer is this: The wilderness is about leaving one’s life behind; that is the very purpose. God responded when Moses and Hagar left their complicated situations behind, but what he really wanted was for them to give up lives that were worth something to them. Once Moses and Hagar no longer wanted to be in the wilderness, the time was ripe for them to go, so they were driven to reenter. Making sacrifice is an important part of what it means to grow closer to God, but I maintain that it is a whole relationship, not sacrifice alone, that God pursues in the wilderness. Consistent with that, God characteristically waits until people are ready to give up, and then he comes to the rescue them. I propose that God wants to be loved for who he is, rather than what he gives us; with or without food, he is still the God of his chosen ones.33 They would sacrifice all else to be with him, wherever he goes. They give themselves no way out and, in the best of cases, they do not regret that, even at the point of death.

Practical Suggestions
Post-industrial society has contrived some counter-productive ways of thinking and living that can stifle the gains of a wilderness experience. It is possible to surround oneself with a constant barrage of noise in the form of entertainment and news, utterly preventing the kind of quiet recollection necessary to “hearing” God, as it occurs in every quiet, isolated wilderness experience. All forms of instant distraction can preclude time to reflect. Only understanding God’s way of acting allows one further to develop a coherent view of oneself and the world. This, in turn, allows for the deepest kind of trust, and feelings of security, and intimacy. It is essential that we be aware of the challenges of our society, and the ways that we cleverly avoid the wilderness, in order that we do not miss out entirely such an experience. “As much as we might prefer to avoid it, the wilderness is where God is. The wilderness is where God does some of God’s best work.”34

Entering the second experience of the wilderness is a place to decide whether or not to continue to follow it, trusting the Lord, even when the situation appears to be dire. It’s important to mention this information outside of spiritual direction, for instance, in the regular course of homilies, for the benefit of people who do not seek out spiritual direction. All suffering, abuse, family conflicts, confusion, and other pains in this life can bring us into a spiritual (if not physical) wilderness where we encounter God. Ultimately, this means that suffering has a purpose, and that a life in which there appears to be nothing but suffering can have the deepest meaning of all. Alleviating or avoiding pain is not wrong—as evidenced by the first entrance into the wilderness—but a life free of crises would never allow a decision to be made between God and the things he provides for us. The questions about his trustworthiness, and what we are willing to leave behind in order to follow him, would never occur to someone who was not in pain. Without suffering, there is no freedom to love God entirely, to make a sacrifice for him. It is a crisis like the second entrance into the wilderness, which makes room for what is truly most important for human fulfillment.

  1. One author calls it “one of the most basic in biblical tradition, and it is to be expected that it should appear again and again as the Lord’s plan of salvation unfolded.” Augustine Stock, O.S.B., The Way in the Wilderness: Exodus, Wilderness and Moses Themes in Old Testament and New (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1969), xii. It is beyond the scope of this essay to mention every biblical wandering in the wilderness, so the reader will find copious sources that deal with various instances of the theme instead. I have chosen to work with this theme because it receives such emphasis within scripture.
  2. F. Ibarmia, “El Desierto y su significado religioso en la Biblia,” Revista de espiritualidad 62/246-247 (2003): 9-40, at 11: “La vida agrícola y la urbana, más desarollada, se nos presenta como la más corrompida, alejada de Dios y cerrada a su acción y orientaciones. En esa cultura surgen y se desenvuelven las personas más perversas y degredadas.” (Author’s translation: “The most developed agricultural and urban life presents itself to us as most corrupt, shut away from God and closed off from His action and guidance. In that culture arise and flourish the most perverse and degraded people.”)
  3. G.I. Davies, “Wilderness Wanderings,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 6, Ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 912-914, at 914.
  4. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. J. Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 16: “In all this the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise.” Ratzinger argues that the entire wilderness experience including the law, which turns out to be an interior or spiritual land, is for the purpose of worship. He strikes a different emphasis, thought not a contradictory one, where he addresses Jesus’ forty days in the desert; see footnote 21.
  5. Ibarmia, see footnote 2, offers a chronological study of desert / wilderness experiences throughout the Old and New Testaments with a view towards a spiritual understanding that places trust and relationship at the fore.
  6. Ibarmia, at 15: “El desierto no sólo es prueba; es pureza religiosa en una actitud de confianza inquebrantable en Dios y en sus promesas. El elemento que prevalece es la fe y confianza.” (Author’s translation: “The desert is not only a test: It is religious purity in an attitude of unshakable confidence in God and His promises. The element that prevails is faith and confidence.”) Ibarmia goes on to examine in particular detail the desert experiences throughout the Old Testament, as well as the desert experiences of John the Baptist and Jesus.
  7. T. B. Dozeman, “The wilderness and salvation history in the Hagar story,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117/1 (1998): 23-43.
  8. Ibid., at 32.
  9. Ibid., at 32-33.
  10. Ibid., at both 33 and 43.
  11. B. B. Taylor, “Four Stops in the Wilderness,” Journal for Preachers 24/2 (2001): 3-9, at 5.
  12. T. Fretheim. Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Exodus. (Louisville, KY: Knox, 1991), 172.
  13. Cf. Psalm 95, in which Israel portrays the mind of God as most distressed that they do not know his ways, even though they’ve seen his works. Clearly, Israel was also concerned with knowing his mind, even going so far as to pray and sing words in his voice at times. The law and the prophets are, for Israel, intimate insight into God’s mind and heart, insights which have not been given to any other people.
  14. We can at least agree that Mark mentions the wilderness not “in order to give geographical fixture to the record but to fix Jesus in the Wilderness tradition”; that is, “Mark’s prime concern is the Wilderness theology as such” (Stock, 65).
  15. D. L. Eisenbise, “The Desert: Wilderness of Transformation,” Brethren Life and Thought 50/1-2 (2005): 58-62, at 61.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Eisenbise, “The Desert: Wilderness of Transformation,” 59.
  18. Ephesians 1: 9-10; Romans 8: 14-23 and 28-39.
  19. Luke 2: 49-50.
  20. Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 24: “The texts give us no window into Jesus’ inner life–Jesus stands above our psychologizing (Guardini, The Essence of Christianity).”The pope is not suggesting that an intimate relationship with Jesus is impossible, but he argues that we must be modest in claiming to know what the inner experience of someone both divine and human might be, since we are merely human ourselves. Hence, the absolute warning that we have “nicht” (“no”) insight into the inner life of Jesus here.

    For a little objectivity on the issue, I turn to the devil, who I think can be counted on both to perceive weaknesses, and to attempt to capitalize on them. Notice the manner in which the devil phrased his temptations: “If you are the son of God…” The devil had reason to think Jesus was still growing in security about his identity and / or mission, and, after forty days of fasting in the wilderness, this was the opportune moment for the devil’s attack. Jesus was tired, hungry, and tempted to grasp for his destiny, to steal it ahead of the appointed time. We know that it took energy to resist these temptations because angels came to minister to Jesus afterwards. We have no insight into what it’s like to be one person with two natures; how Jesus experienced temptations; what his self-talk might sound like, or whether he had any at all. Still, there are some things about his inner life that must be the case, in order for this scene to make sense. So, I will argue next that the wilderness, even in Jesus’ case, is a matter of something more than reconciling sinners, resisting temptations, learning to worship properly, waiting for providence, etc. The wilderness experience is about developing security in one’s attachment to the Father, and security in one’s own identity in relation to him. Pope Benedict XVI, too, argues that the temptations are about Jesus’ mission “We will see Jesus wrestling once again with his mission during his agony on the Mount of Olives. But the “temptations” are with him every step of the way. In this sense, we can see the story of the temptations—just like the Baptism—as an anticipation that condenses into a single expression the struggle he endured at every step of his mission,” ibid., p. 27. Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, (Freiburg: Herder, 2007), 55-56.

  21. Mario Mikulciner and Phillip R. Shaver, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics and Change (New York: Guilford Press, 2007), at both 11 and 51.
  22. Ibid., 16.
  23. Ross A. Thompson, “Early Attachment and Later Development,” Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications Ed. Judy Cassidy and Phillip R. Shaver (New York: Guilford Press, 1999), 265-286. I have chosen to work with this school of thought within psychology because I found it to be the most fruitful choice in collaboration with the wilderness stories. As a contrasting example, behavioral psychology instructs that one should immediately reward and punish behaviors; it further instructs that the best reinforcement is random positive reinforcement for desirable behavior. In the wilderness stories, we see God waiting until the last minute to answer prayers, and he always (not sporadically) answers them eventually. Behavioral psychology serves to help us understand why the Israelites failed so frequently, but beyond that, it can only illustrate that God is not primarily concerned with programming our behaviors. It does not help us much to posit what he is attempting to do in the wilderness.
  24. Daniel J. Siegel and Rebecca Shahmoon-Shanok, “Reflective Communication: Cultivating Mindsight through Nurturing Relationships,” Zero to Three 31/2, 2010, 6-14 at 6.
  25. Ibid., at 7.
  26. Ibid., at 8-9.
  27. Ibid., at 10.
  28. Ibid., at 13.
  29. “Again and again the people are warned – remember! They must remember the unprecedented and miraculous help of Yahweh during the Exodus and in the wilderness. They must remember the stubborn rebellion of an intractable people. … Yahweh tested, disciplined, humbled Israel to burn into her heart the secret of her election. He tested her so that she might find out what was in her heart. …The purpose of the test is Israel’s self-recognition which consists in humility.” Stock, 59, is a commentary on Moses’ farewell address to the people.
  30. Daniel J. Seigel, “Attachment and Self-Understanding: Parenting with the Brain in Mind,” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 18/4, 2004, 273-285, at 274.
  31. Gowan points out the appearance of God in the form of fire as a recurring Scriptural theme. It’s a warning to Moses in the burning bush that he should come no further, and hide his face. There is both enlightenment and danger here. This is the way God chose to appear during his proclamation that he would save his chosen people. Donald E. Gowan, Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary (Louisville, KY: West John Knox Press, 1994), 26.
  32. Kipling D. Williams, “The Pain of Exclusion,” Scientific American Mind 21/6, 2011, 30-37.
  33. This is stated another way in Stock, 55: “They are not permitted to live in security lest they forget their utter dependence on God.” Dependence on God, and sacrifice to him, seem to go hand in hand. We are not to forget on whom we depend for the fruitful harvest, but rather, we are called to offer up the first tenth of it in worship.
  34. B. B. Taylor, “Four Stops in the Wilderness,” at 9.
Juliana Weber About Juliana Weber

Juliana Weber earned her MA in Theology at Ave Maria University and now works for a parish in the Archdiocese of Washington. She regularly reviews books for Humanum Review and


  1. Avatar Maureen says:

    I am humbled by the beauty and the light of truth you have shed upon the purpose of suffering, Juliana. Thank you for this good work you are doing.

  2. Deeply enlightening article that helps answer some profound perplexing questions.
    But first there’s need for pondering, then letting go…
    Thank you