The wilderness is a place of refuge.
A thousand years after Abraham passes through the Judean wilderness, his descendants have claimed the land as their own. They have spent half of the intervening millennium beyond its boundaries, while the earlier settlers continued to tame it, and, not long before their return, another people had invaded from the sea and settled the coastal plain. Then the return, invasion and conquest of cities, assimilation and struggle with other tribes, the emergence of nationhood, power struggles to decide who will rule. Bronze Age settlements have given way to Iron Age federations. These are turbulent times.
Though the farmable land has been opened up, the wilderness is still wild. The account of one hard-fought battle records that more men were killed by the forest than fell to the sword.
And it is in the wilderness that we find David, having fled the madness of King Saul. David, finding refuge in a cave system large enough to shelter several hundred men.
It is in the wilderness that, some generations later, we find Elijah, having fled the wrath of Jezebel.
The wilderness is the place of the outcast, the outlaw, the person who is being crushed by the way in which their society is ordered; who needs to run somewhere where they will not be followed, or, even if followed, will not be found.
David exchanges the royal court for the wilderness in order to live, to secure an ongoing existence. Not escapism, but survival. Elijah pushes into the wilderness in order to die, having had enough. Both men are followed, and found, by God – and by those sent to them by God. In a cave very near to the lowest place of earth – physically and metaphorically, external and internal geography coinciding – David discovers that God is his rock. From the mouth of a cave in the wilderness, Elijah, having been sustained and strengthened, encounters the whisper of God in the sheer silence that follows wind, earthquake, and fire.
The wilderness is a place of refuge. There are times when we need to get away, out into the countryside, encountering God in creation, away from the treadmill and the rat race. And there are times when we need to shut the door on the world and head deep into the wilderness within, the untamed and untameable self. Times when we head into the wilderness in order to protect ourselves; and, perhaps, times when we head into the wilderness where that deepest part of us that desires to live – where God’s words releasing life into the world still reside - wrestles with the weight that presses in on us to die.
By day, the wilderness can be breathtakingly beautiful; wandering through it, an invigorating experience, certain trails and landmarks becoming familiar friends. By night, or caught in a forest fire, it can be a disorienting and dangerous place to be: what monsters lurk just beyond our vision? Will I flee the sword, only to hang caught from a tree? Likewise, our experience of the internal wilderness will vary, from restorative visit to ordeal. Then again, the Psalms remind us that cities – our engaging with civil society – can be places of bewildering treachery and painful struggle.
The wilderness itself becomes less threatening when we appreciate it as part of God’s creation: as a home and provision for the wild animals, including that within us that needs to break free. And when we recognise that God, the most fierce and free being of all, is more at home in the wilderness than he is in a temple.
As a boy, David encountered lions and bears; learnt how to scare them off – and, if necessary, kill them – with a sling. Of the wild and dangerous places between the open spaces, he sang of a Shepherd who carried two sticks: one held along the flank of a sheep to steer it back onto the path; the other, a cudgel with which to drive back predators. Have we become too domesticated to walk through the wilderness with confidence?
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