The wilderness is a place of open-handed vulnerability.
Today, the Judean wilderness is semi-desert. But this is misleading, as four-thousand years of climate changes, deforestation, and, more recently, vastly more intensive water use separate us from Abraham. When he entered the land, the wilderness was, well, wilderness. Much of the land was forested. Bronze Age people had cleared a wide strip along the flat top of the spine of the Judean hills, creating a line of settlements defended by mud walls, along a trade route. Successive generations built literally on top of the previous generation, so that proto-towns rose from the ground. To the west, they had started to deforest the slopes that roll gently to the sea, developing arable farming alongside livestock. To the east, the land falls away into the rift valley – also farmable – dropping away with too much topography in too little space for farming. And so this remained wilderness: untamed.
Abraham enters the land God has told him that he will be a stranger and a guest in, but which his descendants will inherit, from the north. As he moves southward, he does so keeping to the east of the settlements. Abraham is making it very clear that he is not a threat, that he has no intention of competing with the inhabitants of the hill country. He comes in peace, looking to befriend; not in hostility. He retains a nomadic life: his flocks graze back (at least the edge of) the forest, and then he moves them on, to graze another sector and allow new growth in their wake; in this way, nomadic farming manages wilderness, as opposed to destroying it. In contrast, his nephew Lot chooses to live among a people who won’t share or welcome, and who use violence to keep what they have to themselves.
Since Abraham, we have continued to build layer upon layer of urban civilisation, our tell settlements transformed into cathedrals and tower blocks, our cities of ever-increasing complexity. And, to meet the needs of these cities, we have extended the deforestation of the wilderness – even if we know that National Parks, and even neighbourhood parks, are good for us. But this external progression is mirrored by an internal one: an ever-increasing organisational complexity, and the erosion of the untamed spaces within us.
The wilderness touches settled community, even if it lies on the more ‘marginal’ side of that life. Here is to be found solitude, the place of being alone at the edge of society. Solitude contrasts with isolation, that sense of being alone even in the midst of society; and while isolation is bad for our psychological wellbeing, some degree of solitude is in fact necessary, even essential to psychological wellbeing.
There are the ordered, domesticated, architectural internal places. And these are good: I am not advocating a return to the Bronze Age! But they come with the pressure to compete for, and then defend, resources and territory recognised as our own. And then there are the wild internal places: and finding ourselves of vulnerable psychological wellbeing may be an invitation into these places. Places that, it turns out, are not marginal for life, but life-renewing.
Strictly speaking, solitude is not so much about being alone as about being with ourselves, getting lost in our internal wilderness, that place within us that remains wild and untameable because we are created in the likeness of a wild and untameable Creator God (even if God willingly takes on certain restrictions to his freedom in order to come near to us). I am untameable, at least in part; and in this sense must stop trying to control myself, which is to do violence against myself (while recognising that if God willingly takes on certain constraints for the sake of relationship, so must I).
In the internal wilderness, we might discover that God’s grace is sufficient; and that this enables us to be generous, not only with what we have but in our attitude towards others, not needing to compete; trusting that God will work the fulfilment of his promises, of his call. Here we might discover how to live secure lives without defensive walls; that a fragile security, which invites friendship, might be more secure than a robust one, which invites combat.
And here we might begin to discover what it looks like to ‘have dominion over’ the external and internal world, exercising God’s will. For God operates through blessing, not imposing; and when we stretch out an open hand in blessing, we reflect God’s rule. Abraham blessed the wilderness, by managing it through his herds rather than sacrificing it for his herds. We bless the wilderness by choosing to see it not as curse, but gift: embracing vulnerability in ourselves, respecting it in others.