dez'-ert midhbar, chorbah, yeshimon, `arabhah, tsiyah, tohu; eremos, eremia): Midhbar, the commonest word for "desert," more often rendered "wilderness," is perhaps from the root dabhar, in the sense of "to drive," i.e. a place for driving or pasturing flocks. Yeshimon is from yasham, "to be empty", chorbah (compare Arabic kharib, "to lie waste"; khirbah, "a ruin"; kharab, "devastation"), from charabh "to be dry"; compare also `arabh, "to be dry," and `arabhah, "a desert" or "the Arabah" (see CHAMPAIGN). For 'erets tsiyah (Ps 63:1; Isa 41:18), "a dry land," compare tsiyim, "wild beasts of the desert" (Isa 13:21, etc.). Tohu, variously rendered "without form" (Gen 1:2 the King James Version), "empty space," the King James Version "empty place" (Job 26:7), "waste," the King James Version "nothing" (Job 6:18), "confusion," the Revised Version, margin, "wasteness" (Isa 24:10 the English Revised Version), may be compared with Arabic tah, "to go astray" at-Tih, "the desert of the wandering." In the New Testament we find eremos and eremia: "The child (John) .... was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel" (Lk 1:80); "Our fathers did eat manna in the desert" (Jn 6:31 the King James Version).
The desert as known to the Israelites was not a waste of sand, as those are apt to imagine who have in mind the pictures of the Sahara. Great expanses of sand, it is true, are found in Arabia, but the nearest one, an-Nufud, was several days' journey distant from the farthest southeast reached by the Israelites in their wanderings. Most of the desert of Sinai and of Israel is land that needs only water to make it fruitful. East of the Jordan, the line between "the desert" and "the sown" lies about along the line of the Chijaz railway. To the West there is barely enough water to support the crops of wheat; to the East there is too little. Near the line of demarcation, the yield of wheat depends strictly upon the rainfall. A few inches more or less of rain in the year determines whether the grain can reach maturity or not. The latent fertility of the desert lands is demonstrated by the season of scant rains, when they become carpeted with herbage and flowers. It is marvelous, too, how the camels, sheep and goats, even in the dry season, will find something to crop where the traveler sees nothing but absolute barrenness. The long wandering of the Israelites in "the desert" was made possible by the existence of food for their flocks and herds. Compare Ps 65:11,12:
"Thou crownest the year with thy goodness;
And thy paths drop fatness.
They drop upon the pastures of the Wilderness.
And the hills are girded with joy";
and also Joel 2:22: "The pastures of the wilderness do spring."
"The desert" or "the wilderness" (ha-midhbar) usually signifies the desert of the wandering, or the northern part of the Sinaitic Peninsula. Compare Ex 3:1 King James Version: "MOSES .... led theflock (of Jethro) to the backside of the desert"; Ex 5:3 King James Version: "Let us go .... three days' journey into the desert"; Ex 19:2 King James Version: "They .... were come to the desert of Sinai"; Ex 23:31 King James Version: "I will set thy bounds from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river" (Euphrates). Other uncultivated or pasture regions are known as Wilderness of Beersheba (Gen 21:14), West of Judah (Jdg 1:16), West of En-gedi (1 Sam 24:1), West of Gibeon (2 Sam 2:24), West of Maon (1 Sam 23:24), West of Damascus; compare Arabic Badiyet-ush-Sham (1 Ki 19:15), etc. Midhbar yam, "the wilderness of the sea" (Isa 21:1), may perhaps be that part of Arabia bordering upon the Persian Gulf.
Aside from the towns and fields, practically all the land was midhbar or "desert," for this term included mountain, plain and valley. The terms, "desert of En-gedi," "desert of Maon," etc., do not indicate circumscribed areas, but are applied in a general way to the lands about these places. To obtain water, the shepherds with their flocks traverse long distances to the wells, springs or streams, usually arranging to reach the water about the middle of the day and rest about it for an hour or so, taking shelter from the sun in the shadows of the rocks, perhaps under some overhanging ledge.
Alfred Ely Day