Chapter 2

Defining Wilderness

The word wilderness evokes impressions and emotions in people that vary widely. To some, the wilderness is frightening— bringing to mind mostly negative images: savage mammals, dangerous reptiles, harmful insects, treacherous landscapes, and threatening climates. To them, the wilderness is mostly to be avoided and is best observed from behind glass. For others, the images are mostly positive: plentiful and mostly harmless mammals, captivating reptiles, amazing insects, beautiful landscapes, and wonderfully varied climates. To them, close-up wilderness experiences are to be coveted and remembered.

The Bible frequently gives us negative impressions about the wilderness. It brings to mind the rebellious children of Israel wandering in the desert, fearful prophets seeking to escape threatening rulers, and Satan’s temptation of Jesus. But on the positive side are pictures of patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob following their flocks; Moses and Elijah interacting with God; David and Jonathan forging a lifelong friendship; and Jesus retreating into the wilderness for rest, quietness, and communion with His Father.

The original Hebrew gives us some significant insight into the meaning of the word wilderness. The most common word for it, used some 255 times in the Old Testament, delineates a desert, a pasture, or simply an uninhabited and uncultivated land. A couple of other words add the concept of desolation or the dwelling place of wild beasts. The root word in New Testament Greek translated as wilderness is similar to the Hebrew but adds remoteness and solitude. The basic meaning of the English word is “the place where the wild creatures are,” set in opposition to regions where domesticated animals and people predominate.

For the purpose of this booklet, wilderness is used broadly to define areas of the earth where the influence of people has been light. While artifacts and influences of human exploration, industry, recreation, and warfare are now present everywhere on the globe, there are many areas where we can still experience the outside world in much the same manner as our ancient ancestors.

Over the centuries, civic and national leaders have recognized the importance of preserving natural areas in the vicinity of urban developments—like parks, lakes, forest preserves, trails, and riverside recreation areas. The existence of a city park is mute testimony to the fact that the human heart yearns for relief from the unrelenting pressure of manmade things and human systems. Any place where we can manage to be mostly alone with our senses and attuned primarily to what God has made can serve as a sort of wilderness. As a child, I often found that a square foot of grass observed with a magnifier, or a clump of overhanging shrubs that could give me a private “fort,” served to fulfill some of the beneficial aspects of a wilderness experience.

Yet as one outdoor adventurer noted, “The deeper the wilderness, the deeper the experience.” This is perhaps why the most significant biblical sojourns into the wilderness were the ones that were for an extended time or were the most remote. Sometimes more space and time are required for us to receive the positive spiritual impact of a wilderness experience.

There’s another wilderness theme in the Bible that we will not examine: the use of the word wilderness as a metaphor for one’s life experiences. In fact, wilderness as a symbol or figure of speech is by far its most common treatment in books and commentaries on the Bible. Studies that look at the wilderness as the place of the most significant disclosures of God’s “general revelation” are in the minority. In the pages that follow, we will focus on the natural places in our world where people can go to be alone with their Creator— the wild regions.

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