By April 14, 2008 Read More →

The “Desert Motif” in the Bible and in Qumran Literature, Shemaryahu Talmon, Biblical Motifs, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1996.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
The study of the “desert motif” in the Bible has played an important role in Biblical research since K. Budde introduced it into the discussion. Budde’s rather cautious, and fairly balanced, presentation of the “desert” as a formative factor in what he termed “The Nomadic Ideal in the Old Testament,”1 unloosed a veritable spate of publications which further developed the ideas he had proposed. Budde had taken as his point of departure a presentation of the Rechabites as the proponents of a religious belief which conceived of the God of Israel as a typical god of the desert. Presumably in order to recreate the original experience of this deity, the Rechabites adhered to a mode of life which retained the principles of a desert society,2 hoping thus to avoid contaminating the pure Yahwistic religion which in Israel had set in with the Conquest of Canaan. Drawing into the discussion the genealogical note in I Chronicles 2-55 which connects the Rechabites with the Kenites,3 and also the theory that the Israelite religion emanated from a Kenite Yahwism, Budde concluded that the Rechabites not only faithfully adhered to the ancient desert religion, but that they endeavored to serve as its missionaries.4 According to Budde, the prophets, and especially Hosea, reject this oversimplified concept of Yahweh as a desert god. But Budde nevertheless agrees that the desert plays a decisive role in Hosea’s idea of Israel’s future purification, and that indirectly the primitive desert ideal made its impression on the prophet’s message. This opening, the hint at an idealization of the desert in Hosea’s preaching, was fully exploited by P. Humbert.5 In Humbert’s analysis, the “desert” is for Hosea the ideal period in Israel’s history.6 In the prophet’s teaching it also crystallizes into the goal toward which he strives to guide the nation- “Retour aux conditions de la vie de l’époque mosaïque, tel est… le programme d’avenir d’Osée.”7 In Humbert’s interpretation this will be a return to the classical setting of Yahwism;8 “La désert est la patrique classique du yahvisme.” Thus the desert was introduced into the basic concepts of Yahwistic religion as a factor of major importance. Now the desert ideal achieved the proportions of a veritable avalanche. It dominated discussions of the history of Israel and of the history of its religion. Under its impact was created the image of Yahweh as a slightly demonic desert deity, an image which originated in the primitivity of pre-Israelite nomads but allegedly was perpetuated as an idea, and as an ideal into the period of the settlement and into prophetic teaching.

Eduard Meyer, the sober historian, advocated an even wider application of the desert concept in the analysis of Hebrew religion and history than K. Budde and P. Humbert had proposed.9 But the peak of the trend toward the desert ideal was reached with the publication of W. F. Flight’s paper, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal.”10 Not only does Flight subscribe wholeheartedly to the theory that the prophets elevated the “nomadic idea” to a “nomadic ideal,” but he further votes for the adoption of this ideal as a beacon for religious orientation in our own times- “The note which needs to be struck in Christianity today is one which corresponds fundamentally to that which the prophets sounded in their day when they advocated a return to the nomadic ideal in the broadest sense. [Mark the definition- “broadest sense.” S.T.] It is a call back to the essential spiritual simplicity of faith and life which God has revealed in the life and person of his son Jesus Christ.”11

One can hardly fail to recognize the somewhat unexpected turn which the desert ideal took in the process of scholarly discussion. What had started out as an analysis of one theme in Old Testament thought and literature ended up by becoming the expression of the quintessence of Biblical religion. It must be stated in all fairness that scholars sometimes have taken a more balanced view of the role the desert played in Biblical thought. H. P. Smith, hesitantly but correctly, had observed that “the ideal of the Hebrew writers for themselves was agricultural.”12 However, the impact of the desert ideal theory was not really overcome. There results an ambiguity which clearly shows in R. de Vaux’s discussion of the issue. He notes that “our oldest Biblical texts show little admiration for nomadic life… that nomadism itself is not the ideal.” But he nevertheless agrees that in the prophetic books “we do encounter what has been called the ‘nomadic ideal’ of the Old Testament… They [the prophets] condemn the comfort and luxury of urban life in their own day (Amos 3-9; 6-8, etc.), and see salvation in a return, at some future date, to the life of the desert, envisaged as a golden age (Hosea 2-16-17; 12-10).”13 The Rechabites are nevertheless represented, without material evidence, as “the best-known group to organize a return to the desert and to the nomadic ideal.” Because of his associations with the Rechabites, Jehu is dubbed “the ‘wilderness’ king,” and Jeremiah is pronounced their “later sympathizer.”14

The discussion of the reputed desert ideal recently has gained new impetus in the wake of the discovery of the Sectarian literature at Qumran. It is generally maintained that within the spiritual framework of the community that produced these documents we can observe the desert idea not only in the form of a sought-for ideal, but also as a theological concept in operation- that is, as an actuality. R, de Vaux concisely summarizes this approach- “We shall encounter this mystique [sic!] of the desert again in the last days of Judaism, among the sectaries of Qumran, when Christian monasticism still lies in the future.”15


I propose to challenge the desert ideal theory on two counts. First, the assumed existence in Biblical society of a reform movement that advocated a “return to the original nomad status,” supposedly represented by the Rechabites, and echoed in prophetic teaching, is based on historical premises and on sociological comparisons which cannot be upheld without far-reaching qualifications. In the historical times which are reflected in Biblical literature, Israel never can be defined as a true nomad society. “Nowhere in the Bible are we given a perfect picture of tribal life on the full scale.”16 Nor is there found an indication that in the Biblical period the Israelite tribes proper ever passed through a stage of true nomadism.17 (Splinter groups like the Midianites, Kenites, Kalebites, and others who attached themselves to Israel may require a separate treatment.) As early as patriarchal times the Israelite society bears the imprint of semisettled life in which only occasional reflections of nomadic life can be discerned. In fact, if we accept the definition recently proposed by Cyrus Gordon, which conceives of the Patriarchs as “merchant-princes,”18 the often suggested comparison of the patriarchal groups with pre-Islamic Bedouin society becomes altogether misleading. Says Gordon- “It is surprising in retrospect that the Patriarchs could ever have been considered unsophisticated nomadic sheikhs.”19 Quite the contrary, it certainly can be stated that in the Pentateuchal traditions the patriarchal groups are activated by an “agricultural orientation,” even though they did not attain the status of a fully sedentary society. The patriarchal stories reflect the very same ideals which in the post-Exodus traditions crystallize in the hope of a permanent settlement in the Promised Land of Canaan. It is immaterial for the issue under review whether these ideals indeed are rooted in an early Israelite socioreligious philosophy, or whether their ascription to the forefathers is a mere anachronism, a retrojection into pre-Exodus days of the concepts of postsettlement authors.20

Once the patriarchal era is excluded, we are left with the period following upon the Exodus and preceding the Conquest of Canaan as the possible matrix of the image on which was patterned the reputed desert ideal. Historically and sociologically this hypothesis appears to be untenable. Whatever may in reality have been the length of time which the Israelites spent in the desert, the ideological compression of the desert trek into one stereotyped (or schematic) generation, forty years (Deuteronomy 2-14, Psalms 95-10, et cetera), proves that it was considered to have been of minor impact on the sociohistorical development of Israel. Furthermore, even in that comparatively short period, which undoubtedly is portrayed against a desert setting, the tribes of Israel are not presented in the organizational pattern of a typical nomad society. It is interesting to observe that the main characteristics of desert life, and of desert society, as they were abstracted from an analysis of the pre-lslamic Arab tribes, find little expression in the Pentateuchal books which record the desert trek, “Tribal solidarity, desert hospitality and blood vengeance,”21 insofar as they are reflected in Old Testament literature, are to be found mirrored in the accounts of Israel’s sedentary history as recorded in the Former and Latter Prophets, rather than in the Pentateuchal accounts of the desert trek. The few cases of “Bedouin hospitality” which de Vaux adduces to bear out the nomadic character of the patriarchal society22 in fact prove the opposite. Abraham’s reception of the three men at Mamre (Genesis 18-1-8), Lot’s welcoming the three angels (Genesis 19-1-8), and the hospitality extended by Laban to Eliezer (Genesis 24-30-32) at best can be viewed as relics of nomadic mores in a predominantly sedentary society. The same may be said of the custom of blood feud which underlies the establishment of Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35-9-15; Deuteronomy 19-1-13). This juridical institution can become operative only in a sedentary society (Joshua chapter 20, et alibi) at a stage when blood vengeance, as an acclaimed means of retribution, has lost legal recognition. It is worthy of remark that only one case of executed blood vengeance (II Samuel 3-22-27),23 and none of a successful retreat to a City of Refuge, actually is recorded in Biblical historical traditions.24 The sagas of Cain (Genesis 4-13-16) and of Lamekh (Genesis 4-23-24) are set in hoary antiquity and cannot reflect on patriarchal, or later, concepts. Also, “tribal solidarity” plays an insignificant role in Israelite history. The massacre of the Shechemites by Simeon and Levi may indeed etiologically reflect a feud raid by these tribes on the territory of Shechem (Genesis chapter 34). But their action is met with outright disapproval by the Biblical authors (Genesis 34-30-31, probably also 49-5-7), and cannot be construed as a demonstration of tribal mores.

Again, the rallying of the sons of Levi to the help of Moses in the Golden Calf episode (Exodus 32-26) at best reflects guild solidarity, ideologically and etiologically reinterpreted. Korah’s rebellion, and the insurrection of Datan and Abiram, in which were involved only parts of the respective ethnic units (Numbers 16-1-35), clearly prove that even in the trek stage the presumed tribal solidarity would not become automatically operative, and that in fact it was in the process of disintegration.
Summing up, we may say that in the Pentateuchal portrayal of the Israelite society in the desert period, the reflection of phenomena which are characteristic of the later sedentary social structure is much more accentuated than is the reverberation of presumed ancient desert ideals in the literature which mirrors Biblical sedentary society. Altogether we note in the Bible a comparative dearth of firsthand information on desert conditions and true nomad life, which, in view of what we have just discussed, is not really surprising. Whenever such information is offered and whenever desert life is reflected in Biblical imagery, they give witness to a deep-seated aversion to and a great fear of such conditions, not a longing for them.

This point will be further considered at a later stage.

Second, little support can be derived from our sources for the attempted presentation of desert life as a social ideal and of the desert period as an ideal period in the conceptual framework of the Biblical writers. The representatives of the Bedouin in Biblical typology are Ishmael and, to a certain degree, Esau. Neither of them, by any stretch of imagination, can be presented as the Biblical writers’ ideal type. Wresting a precarious livelihood from the desert as hunters (Genesis 21-20; compare 25-27), being dispersed over vast arid areas (Genesis 25-18), and being in daily combat with others dependent on the same meager resources (Genesis 16-12; compare 27-22) certainly was not the vision of the early Israelite. Nomadism is conceived of as a regression from a higher state of society, not as a desirable goal toward which to progress. Cain, the one-time farmer, the fratricide who undid the cosmic order established by Divine decree (Genesis 9-5-6), is ousted from civilization again to become a roaming Bedouin (Genesis 4-11-12). Nomadism is a punishment, the wilderness the refuge of the outlaw.

Also, the Rechabites cannot be adduced in evidence of the presupposed prophetic “desert ideal.” Their nonagricultural mode of life is a reality, not a motif- an occupation (compare I Chronicles 4.38-41; 5-18-22; 7-20-21), not a vocation. They may have resisted the course of cultural development which affected all Israel. But nowhere in the Bible are we told of an effort on their part to propagate their ideals with missionary zeal. Jehu, who for a season joins forces with them (II Kings 10-15-17), is not a “desert king,”25 nor is Jeremiah a desert prophet. By way of a simile the prophet sets up the Rechabites before the nation as an example of steadfastness. But the tertium comparationis lies in their relation to a command, not in the contents of that command. Jeremiah has no admiration for the primitive forms of Rechabite life, nor for the ideas which may underlie it,26 but he has respect for the tenacity with which they observe man-decreed laws, whereas Israel flagrantly transgresses divinely appointed ordinances.

The desert and the desert period are conceived in the Bible not as intrinsically valuable, but originally and basically as a punishment and a necessary transitory stage in the restoration of Israel to its ideal setting, which is an organized, fully developed society, with a deep appreciation of civilization, settled in the cultivated Land of Israel. The “desert motif” that occurs in the Old Testament expresses the idea of an unavoidable transition period in which Israel recurrently is prepared for the ultimate transfer from social and spiritual chaos to an integrated social and spiritual order. The “trek in the desert” motif represents on the historical and eschatological level what “creatio ex nihilo,” the transfer from chaos to cosmos, signifies on the cosmic level.21

Whenever the “desert motif” seems to attain the status of a self-contained positive value, this attribution will be shown to result from variational developments of the initial theme, by way of the infusion into it of other, originally unrelated, themes. In essence the process may be described as a “mixing of motifs,” which introduces new subsidiary elements into the “desert motif” with a concomitant mutation of its original significance.


While we wish to avoid the pitfalls of overemphasis which marred some of the discussions of the “desert theme’’ in Biblical literature, it can be said that the analysis of the “desert motif” indeed does give us an insight, sometimes by way of a negative proof, into some fundamental and extremely fruitful religious and social concepts which were operative in Biblical Israel. The analysis also will reveal the exceeding tenacity with which this motif was perpetuated throughout the diverse stages of Biblical literature into post-Biblical Qumran writings and then was infused into Christian imagery, albeit with a fundamentally different significance.28

This leads to one more point of interest in the Biblical “desert motif.” It appears that this motif is especially well suited for submission to an analysis which will bring out poignant features and characteristics of the “motif” as a literary theme and will illustrate the functions and the developments of a “motif” in a given literary framework. Though we are concerned only with one specific motif in Biblical literature, some typical processes and developments which will emerge in our analysis are transferable to other motifs in Biblical and, mutatis mutandis, also in extra-Biblical literature. Therefore it becomes imperative for us to concern ourselves with the definition of the term motif, since it is the “desert motif” which is the subject of our inquiry.

The term motif seems to have been used in English first in 1848 or 1850 in the field of art. In 1851 motive is defined in a handbook for painters as “the principle of action, attitude and composition in a single figure or group…” By 1860, John Ruskin is speaking of “a leading emotional purpose, technically called its motive” in “any great composition.” Then motif is used in 1887 in the realm of musical theory, to describe “the sort of brief recurring fragment in the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1893), which Wagner called a Grundthema.” Within a year or two, motif as a term for a recurrent theme or subject in a work of art was well integrated into the language, and in 1897 the term was used in a literary analysis of the Biblical Book of Ruth.29

Since then individual Scriptural motifs often have been investigated. However, little has been done by way of defining the literary phenomenon so described and of mapping out the field in which it can be fruitfully employed in Old Testament research. This lack of proper definition sometimes results in the employment of other literary categories, such as Gattung, for the classification of materials which in fact should be subjected to a motif analysis.30

Decidedly more satisfactory is the situation in the field of New Testament studies, where the Lund School of theology, led by A. Nygrén and G. Aulén, successfully investigated the dominant literary motifs, in order analytically to establish the actual contents of the Christian belief, as crystallized in these motifs.31 P. L. Berger thus summarizes the role of the “motif” in the Lund method- “The concept of the religious motif, which can be used with advantage in any phenomenological approach to religion, outside as well as inside the Christian tradition, refers to a specific pattern or gestalt of religious experience, that can be traced in a historical development.”31 Elaborating on this definition, we suggest describing “motif,” with special application to Old Testament literature, as follows-

A literary motif is a representative complex theme which recurs within the framework of the Old Testament in variable forms and connections. It is rooted in an actual situation of anthropological or historical nature. In its secondary literary setting, the motif gives expression to ideas and experiences inherent in the original situation, and is employed to reactualize in the audience the reactions of the participants in that original situation. The motif represents the essential meaning of the situation, not the situation itself. It is not a mere reiteration of the sensations involved, but rather a heightened and intensified representation of them.

In view of the composite quality of a motif, its adaptability to new settings, and its compatibility with other themes, its ultimate forms may be far removed from the initial form. Therefore, often a minute analysis will be required to establish their connection and derivation, and to retrace the intermediate stages of development.

Because of its complexity (by definition)33 a literary “motif” cannot be fully evaluated in isolation. It should be viewed against the background of other, synonymous and antonymous, themes, with which it can be linked in recurring and modifiable patterns. This apposition and opposition will help to clarify the focal meaning of the motif under review and to delineate the limits of its significance within a given body of literature.


We can now proceed to apply the proposed definitions to the investigation of the midbār motif. At this stage the Hebrew term midbār is to be preferred to the English “desert,” since “desert” narrows the more comprehensive midbār to the meaning of “parched wilderness.” The notion of “wilderness” can be expressed in Biblical Hebrew by a number of functionally synonymous terms, such as šammāh, šemāmāh, siyyāk, yešîmōn, et cetera, to which allusions will be made but which will not receive a detailed treatment in our discussion.

Our preoccupation with midbār as a motif removes from direct scrutiny all those of the 267 occurrences of the term in the Bible which refer to the real physical thing. Our focal interest lies in those passages in which midbār is used in a secondary setting as a literary theme. However, before turning to the motif plane, we must determine in rough outline the major aspects of midbār in reality, since these aspects serve as the bases of the figurative employment, and therefore will help in establishing its significances.

Midbār can be subdivided into two major classes of connotations, one basic, the other derivative, which again fall into several subgroups- (1) The spatial connotation, in references to geophysical phenomena;34 (2) The temporal connotation, in the references to a specific historic situation.
Three main subgroups of the spatial-geophysical connotation can be discerned. We shall not present them here in full detail, and we note that the demarcation lines between them are not fixed or static.
1. Midbār describes agriculturally unexploited areas, mainly in the foothills of southern Palestine, which serve as the grazing land par excellence for the flocks, and the cattle of the semisedentary and the sedentary-agriculturist population. In this context the term often is paralleled by ‘arābāh, and like it may be translated “steppe.” The majority of occurrences of the word midbār in the Bible will come under this heading. Here are some illustrations.

Genesis 36-24- “These are the sons of Sibe’on- ‘Aiah and ‘Anah; he is the ‘Anah who found the yēmîm in the midbār, as he pastured the asses of Sibe’on his father.”

I Samuel 17-28- “And with whom have you left those few sheep in the midbār?”

II Chronicles 26-10- “And he built watchtowers in the midbār, and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the lowlands and in the plain.”

Further reference may be found in I Samuel 25- 4, 21.35

This connotation points to the derivation of the noun midbār from a root dbr, “to drive out.” The root may be connected, by way of metathesis, with rbd and also rbs, technical terms which describe the grazing of flocks- for example, in Isaiah 13- 20 – “… no Arab [herdsman] will pitch his tent there, no shepherds will tend their flocks there [yarbîsū; RSV = “will make their flocks lie down there”]. But desert animals [sîyyîm] will graze [yirbesū] there [RSV = “But wild beasts will lie down there”].” We shall render this connotation of midbār by “drift-land,” or, in short, “drift.”

The poignant aspects of the drift setting express themselves in (1) the anthropological sphere- descriptions of the fate of man (and his belongings- for example, flocks) vis-à-vis an unaccommodating nature; (2) the sociological sphere- the presentation of the various aspects of shepherd society; (3) the ecological sphere- the description of tent-life phenomena.
2. The geographical setting of the “drift,” in the borderland between cultivated land and desert, results in the term midbār coming to designate the comparatively thinly inhabited open spaces adjacent to settlements of a temporary (mahanēh), relatively stable (nāwēh),36 or altogether static nature (village or town). These spaces are viewed as an extension of the encampment or the settlement, but are not an integral part of it. The distinction is of an ecological as well as a sociological character.

As an extension of the mahanēh, midbār appears, for example, in Exodus 16- 10- “And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the midbār, and, behold, the glory of God appeared in the cloud,” (Compare further Numbers 24- 1.)

The term is applied to the space adjacent to a nāwēh in Isaiah 27-10, where Israel in the stage of its destruction appears “like a solitary fortified besūrah; better nesūrāh = besieged] city, a forsaken and desolate encampment [nāwēh], like a drift [midbār] wherein cattle graze.”

Very common is the designation of the outskirts of a permanent settlement as its midbār. Thus we find the term used with reference to- Be’er Sheba’ (Genesis 21- 14); Bet ‘Awen (Joshua 18-12); ‘Ein Gedi (I Samuel 24-1); Teqo’a (II Chronicles 20- 20); Damascus (I Kings 19- 15), et cetera. It is this connotation which is mirrored in the Qumran term midbār yerušālayīm.37

3. Midbār also is employed to denote the true desert, the arid zones beyond the borders of the cultivated land and the drift (for example, II Samuel 17- 27-29; II Kings 3- 8-9). This meaning is well rendered in English by “wilderness.”

I can be brief in indicating the focal aspects of “wilderness” in Biblical literature.

The “wilderness” is a place of utter desolation- a vast void of parched earth, with no streams or rivers to provide sustenance for plants and wildlife, except for a very few species (Jeremiah 2- 24). It is a place not fit for human habitation (Jeremiah 9- 1 ], 50- 40, 51- 43; Job 38- 26), the few wandering nomads—’arābîm—being the only exception (Jeremiah 3-2, 9- 25).

This midbār wilderness is the scene of utter cruelty, beast against beast and man against man (Lamentations 5- 9). It is perilous to enter the vast tracts, which are traversable by only a few paths or byways, often barely recognizable.

However, due to its remoteness from settled land, and due to its terrifying desolation, the “wilderness” becomes the refuge of outlaws and fugitives, who may prefer an off-chance of survival in exceedingly adverse circumstances, to the calamities which are certainly to befall them from the hands of their pursuers. Hagar flees into the desert, to escape the anger and the persecution of Sarah (Genesis 16- 6-14). And there in the wilderness her son Ishmael becomes the prototype of the marauding Bedouin- “He lived in the wilderness and became a bowman” (Genesis 21- 20). David takes to the Judean desert in his flight before Saul- “And everyone who was in distress and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented, gathered to him; and he became captain over them” (I Samuel 2). In repairing to the midbār, Elijah tries to save his soul when Jezebel plans to kill him- “He was afraid, and he arose and went [ran] for his life, and came to Be’er Sheba’, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness” (I Kings 19- 3-4). This utilization, out of necessity, of the midbār as a refuge by one who had been forced out of his society may have been conducive to a new concept, which will be discussed later- the desert as the locus of a seemingly voluntary retreat.

We have already remarked that references to “wilderness reality” are comparatively few in Scripture. This seems to indicate the relatively unimportant role which the “wilderness” or “desert” proper played in the life experience of the Israelites in Biblical times. Those mentions that are made mainly pertain to the arid tracts in the deep south of Palestine and the Sinai peninsula. Thus the word midbār becomes a recurrent component of the names of these particular areas, such as midbār sin, midbār par’an, midbār sinai, et cetera. The region in its wider extent is also referred to as desert par excellence, with the definite article- ha-midbār, or ha-midbār ha-gadōl.

The predominant aspects of midbār wilderness in the Bible give additional evidence to the unfamiliarity with and the loathing of the “desert” which were typical of the ancient Israelite. It is the attitude of the city-dweller, the farmer, the semisedentary shepherd, even of the ass-nomad, who may traverse the desert on beaten tracks, but who would not voluntarily venture into its depth. This attitude is exceedingly different from that of the true camel-nomad, the Bedouin, to whom the desert is home.

The connotation of midbār as a barren, awe-inspiring, howling wilderness is intimately related to yet another category of a rather specific brand of “reality.” There are to be found in the Bible some residues of a mythical conception of “wilderness,” which is much more fully developed in ancient Semitic mythology38 and also in post-Biblical midrashic literature. “In Arabic and Accadian folklore, the desert is the natural habitat of noxious demons and jinns.”39 In Ugaritic myth it is Mot, the god of all that lacks life and vitality, whose “natural habitation is the sun-scorched desert, or alternatively, the darkling region of the netherworld.”40 Mot is the eternal destroyer, who periodically succeeds in vanquishing Baal, the god of fertility and life, and in reducing the earth temporarily to waste and chaos. It may be due to this identification in Canaanite myth of desert and darkness with Mot, that any equation of Yahweh with the wilderness is anathema to the Biblical writers. Has he been “a wilderness unto Israel or a land of [thick] darkness” (Jeremiah 2-31), demands Yahweh, so that Israel might have reason to reject him?

These mythical visions of midbār wilderness are mirrored in Biblical pronouncements which show the desert to be populated by phantom-like creatures, alongside the scanty animal population. Thus, while looking after asses that were grazing in the midbār, Sibe’on’s son ‘Anah found the yēmîm (Genesis 36- 24), whom the midrash identifies as demonic beings.41 “There [in the desert] ostriches will dwell, and there satyrs [śe’îrîm] will dance” (Isaiah 13-21). The presence of such monsters in fact indicates that a place has been reduced to the primeval state of chaos- “An unknown, foreign and unoccupied territory (which often means ‘unoccupied by our people’), still shares in the fluid and larval modality of chaos.”42 Such will be the future fate of Edom- “The hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. He [God] shall stretch the line of confusion [tōhū] over it, and the plummet of chaos [bōhū] over43 its nobles” (Isaiah 34-11), “And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas, the satyr [śa’îr] shall cry to his fellow; yea there shall the night hag [lîlît] alight and find for herself a resting place” (Isaiah 34-14).44 The midbār plays a prominent part in Psalm 29, which brims with mythical creation terminology in a historicized setting- “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness [midbār], the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The Lord sits down on his throne [la-mabbūl],45 the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.”46

It is this mythic aspect of midbār which is retained in the ritual of driving out a goat (śa’îr) into the wilderness (‘eres gezērāh) to ‘Aza’zel as an atonement offering (Leviticus 16-7-10, 22), and which subsequently became permanently associated with the rites of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16-29). We shall have occasion to suggest that these mythical undertones of midbār possibly influenced some developments of the “desert motif” in the Bible.


The above aspects of midbār in the geophysical reality (drift wilderness) determine the secondary literary employment of midbār language in the Bible.

The “drift wilderness” connotations in the main result in literary imagery which is based predominantly on the figurative employment of one aspect of “typical,” not “one-time specific,” midbār reality. Generally speaking, turning “reality” into an “image” involves a transfer from the original setting onto an altogether different plane. Usually the image serves to achieve a concretization of abstract ideas and relationships.

Again there is no need to go into much detail. Such imagery is the stock-in-trade of Biblical prophets and psalmists. Some examples will suffice.

1. The “leader-led” relationship, between (for example) king and nation or God and nation, is often portrayed as the dependence of the flocks on the shepherd. Says Yahweh- “I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture” (Micah 2-12), A most intricate and abounding employment of the image is found in Ezekiel, chapter 34. Here is one illustration (verses 20-25)-

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them- Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd… I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the drift [midbār—RSV- wilderness] and sleep in the woods.” (Compare further Isaiah 40-11; Jeremiah 23-1-6.)

2. The ecological aspects of the “drift” were recaptured especially in tent imagery. Steadfastness and security are likened to a well-anchored tent- “Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be plucked up, nor will any of its cords be broken” (Isaiah 33-20). Failure and death, on the other hand, are compared to the uprooted tent- “My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent” (Isaiah 38-12, further Jeremiah 10-20). “If their tent-cord is plucked up within them, do they not die…” (Job 4-21). The spreading out of the tent sheets to accommodate an increased population portrays the previously barren woman who was blessed with offspring- “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitation be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (Isaiah 54-2).
The dusky beauty of a sun-tanned maiden conjures up the image of the pitch-black goat-hair tents of the shepherds- “I am very dark, but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem,” says the Shulamite, “like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon” (Song of Songs 1-5).

In spite of the reference to Kedar, a typical desert tribe, the last-mentioned image belongs to the “drift” context. Wilderness imagery does not express beauty, success, or security. It crystallizes abject fear, destruction, and desolation, which the Israelite perceived in desert reality (Isaiah 14-17; Zephaniah 2-13).

3. A ruler in his ruin is compared to a vinestock transplanted from fertile ground into the wilderness- “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches… Now it is transplanted in the wilderness, in a dry and thirsty land” (Ezekiel 19-10-13). The fate of such a plant in the desert is certain; it will wither. Like it is the man who puts his trust in human beings and not in God- “He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land” (Jeremiah 17-6). Man’s cruelty at its height is like that of “the ostriches in the wilderness” (Lamentations 4-3), or like that “of wild asses in the desert… seeking prey in the wilderness” (Job 24-5).

Yet, as in reality, the desert also can equal “refuge”- “Flee, save yourselves,” is the prophet’s advice to the Moabites, “Be like a wild ass in the desert” (Jeremiah 48-6). And the Psalmist “would wander afar… would lodge in the wilderness” to find shelter from his enemies, who are likened to “the raging wind and tempest” (Psalms 55-7-8).

This fact gives rise to an incipient positive image which is derived from “wilderness language”- namely, the employment of “desert” as a figure for “retreat,” as in Jeremiah’s famous lament- “O that I had in the desert a wayfarer’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them” (Jeremiah 9-1). This theme was not further developed in Biblical literature. Even in the Jeremiah passage the “positive” aspect is subsidiary. The prophet is not drawn into the desert, as it were, to meditate there and come face to face with his God. He does not seek communion with the Deity, but rather he longs to dissociate himself from his contemporaries.


So far we have dealt with perspectives of midbār in its over-all spatial-geophysical connotation. We can now turn to what we termed its “temporal-historical” connotation.

In a rather large number of its occurrences in Biblical literature midbār serves as a designation of the clearly circumscribed period which followed upon the Exodus and preceded the Conquest of Canaan. This period roughly falls into two unequal stretches of time. The one, spanning the first two years, includes the events from the Crossing of the Red Sea to the Sinai theophany, and to what immediately follows upon it. The other extends from that point, when Israel is encamped in the Par’an desert to the war against the Midianites, which is the last skirmish against desert people, and after which Israel enters the territories of the Transjordanian states. This period encompasses most of the remaining thirty-eight years. These are the years of the desert trek proper, the wanderings which were imposed upon Israel as a divine punishment for their sins and for their doubting God’s power to lead them safely into the Promised Land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 2- 14-16), The episodes of this period are surveyed comprehensively in what may be called “The Book of Israel’s Failings,” which comprises Numbers 11- 1-31-20 (or possibly 31-54) to the exclusion of 26- 1-30-17, which appear to be a later intrusion. This “book of iniquities” is editorially clearly set apart,47 and it is the incidents related in this book, and its atmosphere, which have decisively determined the image of the desert period in subsequent Biblical literature.48

We now have to establish the themes and ideas which could be derived from the account of the historical desert trek, and the moods and reactions which this account could be expected to evoke in the audience that was exposed to it. This encounter was achieved either by a direct reminiscent recital of the story, most probably in a cultic setting, or else by employing the trek experience as a literary motif. We may presume that such secondary employment prerequires a historical and sociological disengagement from the historical trek situation and an ontological perspective toward desert conditions. Therefore, it can cause no surprise that figurative desert language is not used at all in the historical portions of the Pentateuch, or in subsequent Biblical historiography. Here, as in legal literature, “desert language” refers to the thing itself, not to its image. Also in Wisdom literature, which is nonhistorical in character, the desert trek does not serve as a source from which literary motifs are drawn. There are, however, some instances of midbār imagery which are anchored in the wilderness aspect (for example, Job 1-19, 24-4), or in the creation-myth setting (for example, Job 38-26).

The desert-trek motif makes its first appearance in the Deuteronomistic attempt to recapture the quintessence of the trek experience, and to present it as the typological crystallization of the immanent relation between the nation and God (Deuteronomy 32; compare Psalms 78 and 106). The preponderant employment of the desert motif is found in the books of the pre-Exilic prophets and in the Book of Psalms. Thus it can be stated that the midbār theme in fact is concentrated in Biblical literature which originated in the period of the First Temple. With the end of the monarchy, the employment of the desert motif abates, possibly due to the re-experience of actual wilderness-desolation conditions (for example, Malachi 1-3). In post-monarchical literature it is replaced by new themes, which represent similar ideas and notions and which emanate from events and situations which are set in the period of the kingdom-.

Two major themes emerge from the traditions pertaining to the desert period in Israel’s history. On the one hand, in the first part of this period, it is dominated by the Sinai theophany, in which Yahweh reveals Himself to Israel and establishes a covenant with His people. The second part of the period, on the other hand, is characterized by two mutually complementary strands of significance which run through the account- Yahweh provides Israel with sustenance and guides His people in the chaotic wilderness. In His benevolence He shields them from danger, although the desert period as such had been appointed by Him as a punishment for Israel. But the people, stubborn and without remorse, continue flagrantly to disobey the Lord and to kindle His anger. Worse than the future days of the Judges, the desert period is typified by Israel’s wickedness, by an uninterrupted sequence of transgressions. It lacks even the relieving moments of temporary repentance which ameliorate the Biblical verdict on the times of the Judges.

It is our thesis that the theme of “disobedience and punishment” is of much greater impact on the subsequent formulation of the “desert motif” in Biblical literature than is the concept of the desert as the locale of Divine revelation and of Yahweh’s love for Israel. The idealization of the desert, which scholars perceived in the writings of some prophets, derives from an unwarranted isolation of the “revelation in the desert” theme from the preponderant “transgression and punishment” theme, with which it is closely welded in the Pentateuchal account of the desert trek. The widespread opinion that “the pre-exilic prophets for the most part [sic!] interpreted the forty years as a period when God was particularly close to Israel, when he loved his chosen people as the bridegroom his bride,”49 in the last count rests on the slender evidence of two passages, Hosea 2-17 and Jeremiah 2-2, which are discussed out of the wider context of the prophets’ message. A closer analysis of this theme, viewed in relation to other concepts and motifs in Biblical, and especially in prophetic, literature, indicates that it is of minor importance. In no way can it be construed to serve as the nucleus of a reputed “desert ideal.” The experience of a theophany in the desert is not an intrinsic feature of prophecy as such, but rather a particular instance in the life of some prophets. Nor can it be presented as a fundamental aspect of Yahweh, as has been proposed. In fact we now witness attempts to establish a phenomenological relationship between Yahwistic religion and the desert. The conclusion, presented by M. Weber as a result of empirical studies, that a provenance from the borderland between desert and cultivated land (Grenzgebiete des Kulturlandes im Übergang zur Wüste) is characteristic of the Biblical prophets,50 is formulated as a phenomenological axiom in a geography of religion.51 The desert is tentatively elevated to the position of an especially “geeignete Offenbarungsstätte des wahren Gottes.”52 “Beduinentum und Jahwismus” are conceived of not only as historically related, but as existentially consanguineous phenomena, which were most fruitfully mated in the prophetic experience of the desert deity Yahweh in His natural setting.53 Such a regional determinism cannot be squared with the prevailing prophetic idea of Yahweh as an omnipresent deity who defies any geographical or conceptual circumscription.54 Therefore, it appears that in revealing Himself in the desert, to the prophet as an individual, or to His people as a group, Yahweh accommodates Himself to the actual habitat of the recipients of this revelation. What the Temple is to Jeremiah and Ezekiel the priests, and to Isaiah the citizen of the metropolis, is the desert—or the drift—to Moses and Amos the herdsmen, and to Elijah who also lived in the midbār, the borderland between “Kulturland und Wüste,” Not in search of God does Elijah go into the desert, but out of fear of Jezebel. That he experiences a theophany in the wilderness is accidental, not predetermined by Yahweh’s desert character. Thus we may assume that initially the theophany in the desert does not reveal the nature of Yahweh, but rather the existential setting of the men who experienced Him there. Being a historical deity and not a nature god, and being the exclusive god, invested with geographically and otherwise unrestricted power, Yahweh was not bound to reveal Himself in a specific location, but could permit men to experience Him in their own existential framework. It is for this reason that in the limited historical period of the “trek in the desert,” the desert is the exclusive locale of Divine revelation. With the Conquest of Canaan the Israelite concept of Yahweh became charged with new images. It may well be that in the first stage, during the conquest of the central mountain ridge, Yahweh was identified as a “mountain deity.” In this identification we may perceive a variation on the Yahweh image of the pre-Conquest times, with its specific attachment to Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb.55 This concept lingers on into monarchical times among surrounding nations, like the Arameans, who continue to conceive of Yahweh as ’elōhê hārîm (I Kings 20-23), just as the “desert god” image lingers on in Israel proper. After the establishment of the monarchy, the conception of Yahweh as the royal ruler of an orderly universe overshadows all previous notions. It becomes the dominant motif in Israel’s religion, and is carried over into prophetic eschatology, in which neither the “desert god” nor the “mountain god” has a stake.


We now have to consider the “desert motif” in conjunction with other Biblical motifs. This is especially important in view of the twofold significance which we discerned in the account of the desert trek. The figurative employment of the trek traditions mirrors the two diverging phases in the Yahweh-Israel relationship which characterize the period of the desert wanderings. The one or the other, the “Divine grace” or the “Israel’s sin and punishment” aspect, can be stressed. The re-enforcement of the one or the other is achieved by infusing into the “trek motif” new images and motifs which are anchored in midbār language in the wider sense of the word.

Thus we find in Jeremiah 2-6 a fusion of the historical “trek theme,” as an expression of God’s benevolence and guidance, with the partly mythical “wilderness-desolation” theme- “They did not say, ‘where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness,’” and then in a new vein- “…in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?”

Again in Psalm 78-52 the notion of Divine protection, inherent in the trek motif, is combined with the shepherd image, which has no roots in the historical account, but is derived from the “drift” context- “Then he led forth his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.”

An altogether new element is introduced into the trek motif by Hosea and is further developed by Jeremiah. These modifications deserve special attention, since they were godfathers to the “desert ideal,” already referred to.

The predominant motif of the first three chapters of the Book of Hosea portrays Yahweh’s steadfast affection for Israel as the unfailing love of a husband for his wayward wife.56 As punishment for her unfaithfulness the wife will be deprived of her material comforts and will be reduced to abject poverty. It is hoped that this hardship will cause her to repent, to mend her ways, and to prepare herself for a renewed and everlasting fidelity toward her husband. On the plane of the “nation” this process is viewed as a re-enactment of the desert-trek period. That period had served Israel as a transition stage from enslavement in Egypt to a free covenant relationship with Yahweh in Canaan. Accordingly Hosea’s “return to the wilderness” motif, like the historical trek through the desert, is not set up as an aim per se, but like it it serves as punishment and as a rite de passage toward the true goal—the re-establishment of the wife-Israel in the Land of Canaan.

Now the transition aspect of Hosea’s “desert motif” is obviously derived from the account of the historical desert trek. However, the “marital love image” has no roots in the desert account,37 which uses other imagery to conceptualize Yahweh’s attachment to Israel- for example, the “parent eagle-fledglings” image (Exodus 19- 4; Deuteronomy 32 -11). But we have it as an independent motif in the first chapter of the Book of Hosea. Therefore it is feasible that the fusion of these two initially unrelated themes, the “trek motif” and the “love motif” originated with the author of this Book.

Still, the already observed cases of a combination of “trek” images and “drift” images make one look for a traditional “love-cum-midbār” motif, with midbār standing for “drift” or “wilderness.”
Two possible sources come to mind. One is found in the Song of Songs. A major theme of this collection is the romantic attachment of youthful lovers on the “drift.” The maiden, in search of her beloved among the shepherds and their flocks, is portrayed “coming up from the drift [midbār] like a column of smoke perfumed with myrrh and frankincense” (3- 6).58 Again she is seen “coming up from the drift leaning upon her beloved” (8-5). It may be conjectured that the author of the Book of Hosea infused an independent “love on the drift” theme into the equally independent trek motif, and thus created the quite uncommon motif combination “love in the historical desert period.”

The other source which suggests itself is more remote than the first, but has one additional factor in common with the motif employed by Hosea- it deals with Divine love in the midbār, in the setting of a Canaanitc myth. There is in the “Baal and ‘Anat” cycle, a rather outspoken and crude description of Aliyan Baal’s mating with a heifer in the dbr, the name of a region which presumably was drift—or possibly desert—land-59

Aliyan Baal hearkens

He loves a heifer in Dbr60

A young cow in the fields of šhlmmt

He lies with her seventy-seven times

[Yea ] eighty-eight times (67- V- 18-22)

Ars dbr in the Ugaritic myth is part of the nether world, the domain of Mot, and is inhabited by his helpmates, just as in some Biblical reference the midbār is the abode of demons (Isaiah 13-21-22, 34-11-14). It stands to reason that in the Hosea motif a revised Canaanite mythological theme, “Divine love on the drift” (or better- “in the wilderness”) was wedded with the historical wilderness-trek motif.61 Such an interpretation lends a new dimension to this latter motif. Far from being the “normal” or “ideal” habitat of Yahweh, the wilderness, which is the realm of Mot, the ruler of the nether world, is forced to yield to the supreme power of Yahweh. Where the Canaanite fertility god Baal failed because his power is limited to agricultural areas, Israel’s God achieves unimpaired success. “He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste.” With the very same power, “He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry dwell” (see Psalm 107- 33-35). He can return his people to the dried-up waste, and from there give them again their vineyards and turn the valley of desolation into the gate of hope (Hosea 2-17). Viewed thus, the Hosea passage echoes the covert refutation of the Canaanite fertility-god myth.62 This same refutation seems to underlie the trek account, and also the desert visions of Deutero-Isaiah.63

Whatever its origin and history may be, it should have become clear that the “love in the desert” motif of Hosea does not give expression to a prophetic desert ideal, as has been and is yet asserted by some scholars. At the best it constitutes a fairly isolated and subsidiary theme in the prophet’s thought. It is the result of a literary process of motif-mixing, rather than a conscious expression of an explicit theological or existential idea.

However, at this juncture the question must be raised whether or not such a concept can be discerned in the way in which Jeremiah developed this theme. Let us recall that in Hosea’s version, the motif depicts God’s steadfast love for Israel in spite of the nation’s iniquities. This love originally had been revealed in the setting of the “desert trek,” where it was coupled with the “expurgatory transition” motif. In the Book of Jeremiah the love theme takes a new turn. It now portrays Israel’s affection for God in that remote historical setting. At the same time the transition aspect of the “trek motif” is replaced by the “desolation aspect” of the “wilderness motif”- “Thus says Yahweh, I remember for thee [better- “I credit to you”] the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, how thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown” (Jeremiah 2- 2). It must be admitted that this employment of the desert motif by Jeremiah appears to reflect an appreciation of the desert period which deviates considerably from its estimation in the Pentateuchal traditions. If this were to be explained as a deliberate deviation from Pentateuchal historiography, the question would be raised of the prophet’s attitude toward, or of his awareness of, this historiography. But in fact no such reinterpretation has to be presupposed. Jeremiah, like Hosea, never develops the historical desert reminiscence into an ideal toward the attainment of which he wants to guide the nation. Also in his view God’s love for Israel, evoked by the memory of the nation’s fidelity at the time of her youth, ultimately will express itself in a return from the midbār into a restituted, renascent land of Israel- “Thus saith Yahweh, the people that were left of the sword [again] found favor in the wilderness, when I went to give rest to Israel.” And He turns to His people saying- “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, with lovingkindness I have drawn thee [after me] … Again shalt thou plant vineyards upon the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit thereof” (Jeremiah 31-1-4).

Jeremiah’s divergence from the Pentateuchal presentation of the desert period therefore should be explained as a literary variation rather than as a case of a deliberate reassessment of history. The apparent contradiction may be resolved by our attempt to explain the “love in the desert” motif as a fusion of two themes which were derived from different aspects of midbār. We would describe the process as a combination of the “love in the drift” theme with the “desert trek” motif. Thus Jeremiah’s presentation of the desert period does not evidence an unawareness of the Pentateuchal traditions on the part of the prophet, nor does it imply a conscious reworking of these traditions. The variation, which indeed is present, cannot be construed to show that Jeremiah conceived of the desert period as Israel’s golden age, for whose return he nostalgically longed.

Summing up, we may say that both in the books of Hosea and Jeremiah, the modification of the appreciation of the trek period results from an unpremeditated process of literary variation and was brought about by the infusion into the desert motif of initially unrelated themes. The underlying factors are less of a conscious historiosophical character than of a literary nature.

The last prophet, and in fact the latest Biblical source, that makes extensive use of the desert motif is Deutero-Isaiah. Under the impression of the striking similarity between Israel’s historical situation in the Egyptian Bondage and in the Babylonian Exile, Deutero-Isaiah expresses his hopeful expectation of a new Exodus and a new settlement in Canaan in terms and images which are clearly patterned upon the Pentateuchal trek traditions. “The conception of the new exodus is the most profound and most prominent of the motifs in the tradition which Second Isaiah employs to portray the eschatological finale.”64 But Deutero-Isaiah does not merely borrow a theme from Pentateuchal sources, or from prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah who preceded him. His utilization of the ancient material is selective, and is subject to formative adaptation. He fully retains the established notion of the desert trek as a mere transition stage. However, the original rite de passage aspect, for the sake of purification, is completely overshadowed by the “Divine benevolence” theme. The shift of stress is easily explained. It arises out of the fundamentally different theological situation of post-Exilic Israel, compared with that of the Exodus generation. While for the Exodus generation the desert became the locale of purification which perforce must precede the attainment of the Heils goal (Canaan), the returning exiles had already successfully passed through the stage of catharsis, which they experienced in the destruction of the Temple, and in the Babylonian Exile. The purging of the Exodus generation from the dross of sinners was effected in the desert, so that only their as yet guiltless sons reached the gates of Canaan. Israel of Deutero-Isaiah’s time had been decimated by war, destruction, and dispersion. The returning exiles were the ‘aśîrîyāh, the “holy seed” which Isaiah of Jerusalem had envisaged (Isaiah 6-13; compare Ezra 9-2). Therefore, the new Exodus fell to the lot of the faithful remnant. Thus the new trek through the desert could be freed from its purgatory qualities and concomitantly be invested with new images of promise and hope. Now the desert motif could be wedded with the theme of the Davidic covenant, and with the vision of the restituted Jerusalem.65 It is this fusion of the desert motif with the “remnant” idea and with the expectation of a restored Davidic dynasty which, as will be shown, constitutes the basis of the desert theme in Qumran ideology.

In sum we may say that it is altogether futile to speculate on an imaginary prophetic desert ideal, and to present it as the expression of atypical Bedouin zest for freedom which was opposed to the monarchical regime,66 The prophets did not reject the monarchy, but rather accepted it as the form of government which had been divinely decreed for Israel at a specific juncture in its history. The king was conceived of as the pivot of the political order, just as God was in charge of the cosmic order. Disorder and anarchy result in a kingless situation, when the country is thrown back into desert-like chaos (Isaiah 3-1-12; compare Hosea 3-4). Kings indeed did fail in history, and were rebuked and punished for their faults. But nowhere in prophetic literature did the experience of the historical failure of kings result in a request for the abolishment of kingship, and for a return to “free” desert life.

In post-Destruction literature the desert motif occupies an insignificant place. The focal point of history is transferred from preconquest times to the days of the monarchy. It is the House of David which takes the center of the stage, and which becomes a fertile source of literary imagery. Biblical eschatology, the vision of the Messianic golden age, is conceived in terms of a revitalized and purified monarchical regime, based on a “new covenant” between Yahweh and the House of David, This concept is present as early as the books of Amos (9-11-12) and Hosea (3-3-5), and it gains momentum the more clearly is perceived the approaching abolition of Israelite sovereignty.
Ezekiel does not portray the future Davidic king in full detail. In essence his politico-eschatological message is not different from that of his precursors- in the ideal age to come, a reunited Israel, governed by one king and purified from idol worship, again will occupy the Land of Canaan (Ezekiel 37- 21-27). When all has been said, Ezekiel and his contemporaries, as well as the prophets of preceding generations, would fully accept the strikingly realistic picture of the golden age which has been painted by Jeremiah- “For if you do this thing indeed [execute justice and righteousness], then there shall enter by the gates of this house kings sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses…” (Jeremiah 22-4).


Bypassing the question of the employment of the desert motif in the Apocrypha, an issue which will be discussed separately, we now turn to the analysis of the desert theme in Qumran literature and ideology. Since today only part of the relevant Qumran material has been published, the conclusions to be presented are, of course, tentative.

In view of the fact that the Qumran Sectaries had established their communal center in the very real Judean desert, the comparative rarity of the term midbār and its cognates in the Sectarian literature is rather surprising. Only twelve occurrences of midbār are listed in the concordances67 which cover the Qumran material published before 1960.68 Some of these references occur in tiny fragments which remain unintelligible and therefore will not be considered here.69

A classification of the occurrences of midbār shows that the term once is used topographically and pertains there to the “great desert,” which is located to the south of Palestine.70 In one other case the cosmic creation aspect of the midbār theme is involved.71 Neither of these bears on the issue at hand.

Only one mention of midbār is a direct reminiscence of the desert trek, and it cites, most significantly, the extermination of the unbelieving desert generation (Deuteronomy 9-23)- “…and their males were cut off in the desert, and he—God—spoke to them at Kadesh- ‘Go ye up and possess (the land,’ but they chose the desire of) their own spirit and hearkened not to the voice of their Maker’—the commandments He taught them—’and they murmured in their tents’ (Psalm 106-25). And the anger of God was kindled against their congregation.”72 In selecting this Pentateuchal passage when referring to the desert period, the author of the Zadokite Documents aligns himself with the overwhelming majority of Old Testament writers in their depreciative attitude towards this historical period. He further clarifies his view by introducing into his exposition of the Deuteronomy passage the quotation from Psalm 106 which elaborates on the desert generation’s recurring acts of rebelliousness against Yahweh. The historiographyical review presented in Psalm 106-13-33 is but a condensed catalogue of the nation’s iniquities in the desert period, to the exclusion even of the signs of temporary remorse which the Pentateuchal account has preserved. The Sectarian author takes as gloomy a view of the desert trek as does the psalmist, if not more so.

It is important to stress that like Psalm 106, which is of the “cultic confession” type, the Zadokite Fragments express t

Comments are closed.