The desert in numbers / bamidbar
The Desert/Midbar in the Biblical Text
midbar = רבדמ , arava = הברע, yeshimon = ןומישי
nderstanding the role of the desert in the Biblical heritage rests on more than a familiarity
with the desert itself. It also requires acquaintance with the life of shepherds and flocks, and
an awareness of the changes in the landscapes of Israel during the nation‟s different historical periods. Without that understanding it is impossible to grasp the many Biblical and
Talmudic descriptions, images, and symbols taken from the life of flocks and shepherds. [Psalm 23, cf. lushness of „pastures‟ and „waters‟, unusual for a shepherd to experience.] Psalm 65:12-14, You crown the year with your bounty, plenty flourishes in your paths; the pasturelands flourish, and the hills are girded with joy. The meadows are clothed with flocks, the valleys mantled with
grain; they raise a shout, they break into song.
In some years of good rains, yes…
The areas that were generally described as midbar
in the Bible were uncultivated grazing lands that included thickets, forests, and perennial wild vegetation—ideal fodder for sheep & goats.
In Gen.47:3 Jacob‟s sons say to Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds as were also
,”—the forefathers of the Israelites were shepherds. The names of the first stops
on Abraham‟s journey in the hilly regions [the „oaks of Moreh
‟ near Shechem/Nablus (Gen.
12:6), and „the oaks of Mamre
‟ in Hebron (Gen. 13:18)] indicate that the places where he
chose to sojourn were forested areas. Abraham
, who was “very rich in cattle
” (Gen. 13:2), avoided entering the cultivated areas
farmed by the Canaanites in the valleys and plains. The main emphasis in Genesis 13 is the
importance of delineating clear boundaries not only between grazing land and farmland, but also among grazing lands allotted to different flocks…overgrazing can utterly destroy all
available pastureland (see Lot and Abraham‟s solution, Gen. 13:7-12).
In Egypt, there was clear distinction between grazing land and cultivated farming land. Gen.
13:10 speaks of the part of Egypt as “well watered…like the garden of the Lord
irrigated by the swelling Nile. Shepherds were only permitted to pasture their flocks in those areas where the higher soil salinity rendered the land unusable for cultivation. Joseph
instructed his bothers before their meeting with Pharaoh:
“When Pharaoh summons you and asks: What is your occupation? You shall answer:
We have been herdsmen all our lives, as our forefathers were before us, in order
that you be allowed to dwell in the land of Goshen. For all shepherds are an
abomination to the Egyptians
Despite the fact
that they were shepherds, Joseph won Pharaoh‟s permission to settle his
father and brothers in Egypt, on condition that they limit themselves to the grazing area
known as the “land of Goshen
,” completely separated from the cultivated fields. Centuries
later, during the attempted revolt against Moses in Sinai, Dathan and Abram longingly dub
the land of Goshen “[you have brought us out of] the land flowing with milk and honey
to kill us in the desert” (Num. 16:13) applying the exact same words used earlier by the scouts sent out by Moses to describe the Land of Israel (Num. 13:27) after they saw its
forest-covered hills and slopes—every shepherd‟s ideal.
In I Sam. 17:28, young David is asked, “With whom did you leave those few sheep
in the desert?
When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel took with them “cattle in great numbers,
both flocks and herds
” (Ex. 12:38) and they kept to the shepherding occupation of their
forbears during the years of wandering in Sinai and the Negev: “your children shall herd in
the desert for 40 years
” (Num. 14:33).
In modern Hebrew midbar
is used to identify arid places, with little or no rainfall, or where
there is insufficient water for crop cultivation. But in the Bible and Jewish sources, while used in this sense on occasion, the word midbar
conveys the sense of grazing area
David Radak, 12th century, said: “a place to pasture cattle is called midbar, whether it is
close to town or far from it
.” The common denominator between desert, thicket, and
forest was that all three were grazing areas because none was suitable for farming. The main difference between the three is the amount of rain they received.
The Bible has many references to the term arava
designating areas along the Rift Valley from
Eilat in the south to Galilee in the north. Even the dead Sea is sometimes referred to in the Bible as the Arava Sea
(Deut. 3:17; Josh. 3:16). All places referred to as arava
common a typical landscape—a mixture of fresh, verdant areas intermingled with totally arid ground. This is especially obvious when the rift is seen from the parallel mountain
ranges.the salt lands of the Arava stand out clearly, and the salt that covers these surfaces
permits no plants to grow. Job 39:5-6: “Who sets the wild horse free?.whose home I
have made in the wilderness, the salt land his dwelling place?
too appears in the Bible several times in reference to specific areas, such as the
region revealed from the top of the mountains of Moab in Numbers 21:20, and in the stories
of Saul‟s pursuit of David in I Sam. 23:19: “David is hiding among us in the strongholds
of the groves.south of the yeshimon. Then “they left at once for Ziph, ahead of Saul;
David and his men were then in the desert of Maon, in the Arava, to the south of
” (I Sam. 23:24).
are described as desolate regions, not as place
names [cf. NIV]. However, yeshimon
—wasteland—was not only the name for specific regions; the name expanded over the centuries to complement the term midbar—
desert—especially in the
“He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling wasteland (yeshimon
(Deut. 32:10). “How often did they defy Him in the desert, did they grieve Him in the wasteland
)” (Psalm 78:40). “Their greed was insatiable in the desert, they tried God‟s patience in the wasteland
“The arid desert [midbar
] shall be glad, the wilderness [arava
] shall rejoice and shall blossom
like a tulip. It shall blossom abundantly, it shall also exult and sing. It shall receive the glory from Lebanon, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.” (Isa. 35:1-2
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