By In Books, Culture, Theology

The Great and Terrible Wilderness

Moses Brazen Serpent SebastienBourdon

In the Bible we hear of “that great and terrible wilderness” (Deut. 8:15), a place of punishment for faithless Israel, the abode of the scapegoat, satyrs, and tempting spirits. And yet David longs for wings to “fly” and “be at rest…in the wilderness” (Psalm 55: 6-7). Elijah also finds here refuge and God’s miraculous provision; and that same disloyal Israel finds manna “upon the face of the wilderness” (Ex. 16:14). Our Lord is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil and yet angels minister to him there, after a great victory. The season of Lent has strong connections with the Biblical wilderness–a subject near to my own heart and imagination–so what better time to make something of this thematic ambivalence (or seeming ambivalence…) concerning the Wilderness. To do so we must begin with an understanding of what the Wilderness is, inside Scripture and beyond.

Classically, the Wilderness is the place of death and disappearance, the abode of faeries, trolls, wolves, witches, and willow-the-wisps. It’s not a fun place. One Italian had this to say:

          Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer. (Inf. 1.2)

Dante’s dark wood—a selva oscura—is a place of error and wandering, he has come there after losing the straight path. It’s not a fun or a cheery place either—savage, stubborn, and resistant to the presence of man. It terrifies him even to think about that wilderness again. In fact, he says, death itself is almost a vacation compared to hanging out in there. That sentiment is emphasizeddante-dark-wood Durer when he, finally free from the darkness of that wood, proceeds to take a trip to Hell, and it is generally considered to be an improvement in circumstance. Spenser’s Faerie Queen features a similar dark wood that threatens to unmake a hero and his quest. Early in Book I, Una and the Redrosse Knight take shelter from a storm in what appears to be a small grove, and are quickly enthralled by the diverse arboreal variety:

Much can they praise the trees so straight and high,
The sailing Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
The vine-prop Elm, the Poplar never dry,
The builder Oak, sole king of forests all,
The Aspen good for staves, the Cypress funeral.
When weening to return, whence they did stray,
They cannot find that path, which first was shown,
But wander to and fro in ways unknown…

The travelers are so busy glancing about them in wonder that they—to risk a cliché—miss the forest for the trees. Before they know it, they are lost in a bewildering, labyrinthine wood, and cannot find their way out again. The paths that seem to lead to safety actually carry them further into the forest’s black heart, where they find the cavernous den of Error personified—a foul beast “whom God and man doth hate,” half viperous serpent and half woman nursing a thousand little abominations. The mistress of folly and false paths dwells in the wilderness and the careless wanderer can fall, in just a momentary lapse of vigilance, into her clutches. What’s more, the allegorical use here carries the implication that perhaps forests are always like this.

The above examples provide an opportunity to shed light on my treatment of different manifestations of Wilderness. I am calling the forest of Redcrosse’s wandering a “wilderness,” but it could be argued that discussions of the forest won’t get much mileage when we try to drive them around the landscape of the Bible, with its Middle Eastern locales. That would be a true criticism if what I understand to be wilderness identifiers were exclusive to forests but, as I’ll argue later, they are not. For now, notice too that Dante uses several terms to describe the same location: “wood,” “wilderness,” and (a few stanzas later) “valley.” Dante isn’t equivocating on terms here and, though I will be examining several different environments (including dense forests, desert wastes, and misty moors), neither am I. Dante scholar Lawrence Warner argues that in his consideration of wilderness and the dark wood, Dante is borrowing his categories directly from the tradition of Scripture. The Italian poet is making a significant connection between forests, desolate valleys, and the larger concept of Wilderness. I consider all these environments equally to be Wilderness and I believe Scripture warrants this outlook. On that note, let us proceed to Scripture itself.

When Adam awoke in the World, he awoke in Eden; for him, the two were inseparable. God planted a garden to get him started, and then gave him the task of ruling and cultivating the whole earth—going forth to coax similar produce from the surrounding lands. In this sense, there was no real boundary or intrinsic difference between Eden and the rest of the world, only a temporary distinction between the land that was already cultivated and the land that would be cultivated. (Though I’ll happily admit a distinction for purposes of worship, such a distinction does not change the nature of my present discussion.) The whole world was (at least potentially) Garden/Eden.

adam-and-eve-expelledThe wider world only became other than or intrinsically distinct from Eden after the Fall—this was the beginning of Wilderness. After man sinned he was banished from the Garden and prevented from ever re-entering. The kernel of Paradise that was supposed to grow and spread until it encompassed the entire world, was walled off from the world and removed beyond man’s reach. With the Tree of Life lost and the streams of water (at least metaphorically) cut off, the world beyond Eden becomes a wilderness of death and hard, cursed ground. Man couldn’t get back into Eden if he wanted to, so, in essence, his whole world has become a Wilderness.

What was out there in that first world-wilderness? The Deceiver himself is presumably exiled hence; the land is cursed, there are wild animals, and it is eventually home to the wandering murderers of Cain’s clan. The Serpent is exiled into the same Wilderness as man. In fact, all of the beasts that man can no longer govern, due to the marring of God’s image in him and the rift created by animal sacrifice, are running around out there. The prophet Jeremiah would later describe Wilderness as “desolate” (Jer. 12:10), a “parched desert” and uninhabited “salt land” (Jer. 17:6). The Wilderness also comes to be known as the abode of the faithless and accursed: “all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mixed people…Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that have the corners of their hair cut off, who dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised” (Jer. 25:24, 9:26). Only a short time after the eviction from Eden, Cain murders his brother, and within a few generations Lamech is running loose killing men and singing psychopathic songs about it. In short, the world quickly becomes a very scary place. Naturally, man begins to carve out places of refuge in the great wilderness; he begins to build cities.

Though the early examples of city-building we see are morally ambiguous or downright blasphemous, Scripture assures us that the impulse is a Godly one. The morally ambiguous is the city Cain founds after he is cursed and exiled (Gen. 4:17); Scripture is silent about his motives and passes no judgment on his work. The later project of Nimrod at Babel, on the other hand, is openly sinful and God judges it accordingly. Nevertheless, the Lord makes a covenant with Abraham and establishes the nation of Israel in Canaan, an Edenic land of cities. Moreover, the New Jerusalem itself is a city, a garden-city in fact—the civilized fulfillment of the Edenic archetype. Really, any time man draws a line in the dirt and tries to scratch out some kind of un-Wilderness, he is—wittingly or unwittingly—anticipating the end of History or recapitulating its beginning…or both. Every attempt at city-building is an attempt to reestablish Eden—for good or for ill.

The Tabernacle and Temple become clear pictures of this principle. Both structures are carefully measured and their boundaries are marked out to set them apart (Ex. 25, Ez. 45:3). The structures are explicitly marked out and set apart from something, and that something is often explicitly the Gentile peoples and lands. Remember that Wilderness is associated with the Gentile powers, and now you have a sanctuary—ornamented with the wood of cedars and decorated with the images of trees and fruits—set up in the midst of a Gentile wilderness. If you aren’t thinking of Eden yet you should be. When Adam was banned from Eden and the Garden, he was no longer able to enter God’s full presence and worship Him there, but Yahweh is a God of reversal and recreation. He blessed man with new manifestations of the Garden and, significantly, man had to build them himself. The new Edens are man-made construction projects out in the wild. In imitation of the Great Spirit who hovered over the waters in the Beginning, man is ordering and reappropriating the chaotic wilderness.

One of the marks of civilization, then—the antidote to Wilderness—is Stewardship, or the Biblical concept of Dominion. Whether we call it dominion or stewardship, we are still speaking about the same thing: the rule and cultivation of a land and/or the beasts that dwell in it. That is, the subduing-of-the-earth that man was created for and commanded to carry out. “Be fruitful and multiply,” said the Almighty to Adam,” fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). If this dominion was part of the Edenic atmosphere, then any manifestations of it after the Fall are manifestations of Un-Wilderness—islands of cultivation and order reclaimed from the untamed and disordered sea of The Wild.

The understanding of Biblical Wilderness as a broadly defined contrast to human presence and cultivation fits with the picture presented by various lexical and linguistics elements of the Wilderness-concept. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wilderness as “an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region; a neglected or abandoned area.” In his essay, Two Archetypes of Landscape, John Stilgoe traces the origin of our modern English word, “landscape,” to the German, “landschaft:a “compact territory modified by permanent inhabitants…not a town exactly, nor a manor or a village, but a self-sufficient, fully-realized construct of fields, paths, and clustered structures encircled by unimproved forest or marsh.” The definition captures clearly the inherent tension between civilization and its uncultivated surroundings. Everything beyond the landschaft, whether it be forest or marsh, desert, mountain, or moor, is wilderness. One other linguistic connection that will be relevant later is the root of the Anglo-Saxon word for “boundary” or “border:” mierce. It shares a common root with and is only slightly distinct from the word “mirce,” murky, dark, or black; and the latter probably took its meaning from the physical characteristics of those particular environments that formed the boundaries or borders of human-ruled lands. Some Saxon probably went looking for an adjective: “boy, this place is awfully foresty, awfully…border-y, awfully mirc-y. Thus we get a name like Mirkwood, which can connote not only dank darkness, but a geographical end to cultivated, well-ordered land.Mirkwood

The Ambivalence
Even if we have a better idea of what Wilderness is, however, there’s still the problem of that pesky ambivalence. It is difficult to feel like we are getting a straight answer. Why can’t the Bible come down on one side or the other? Isn’t the Wilderness bad? It sure seems like it. The Wilderness is not simply disordered, but “great and terrible,” as Moses calls it—and with good reason. As I’ve already mentioned, the ground was cursed, hard and stubborn. Presumably the wild was full of untamed beasts. And, most significantly, it was the place of divine punishment; it’s no surprise that it wouldn’t inspire warm, fuzzy feelings. The first murderer, Cain, is set to wander there—a fact I will come back to when we look at Beowulf in a later section. The nation of Israel wanders in the Wilderness unable to find food or water, beset by deadly scorpions and fiery serpents, until things get so bad that they remark, “were there no graves in Egypt so that God brought us out to the wilderness to die?” And, sadly, their gripes became prophetic, and an entire generation of them did die there in the wild, unable to enter the Promised Land. Christ Himself was tempted there by Satan and ultimately He was crucified there, outside the city. The Wilderness is, in the words of Jeremiah the prophet, a “land of deserts and of pits…a land of drought and of the shadow of death…a land that none passed through, and where no man lived” (Jer. 2:6). The place sounds pretty bad to me. Still, the Wilderness is also shown to be a place of deliverance, providence, and theophany. What sense can we make of this ambivalence?

I want to argue that Wilderness is a direct result of the Fall, existing in antithetical contrast to the Garden and the City—particularly the presence of man’s active stewardship there. The ambivalence about the Wilderness—as both a place of terror and death, as well as one of refuge, redemption, and epiphany—is explained by the varying state of the City: when faithfulness and virtue rule in the City, evil is confined to the outer darkness, while corruption and wickedness within its boundaries drive the righteous into the Wild where God is faithful to succor them.  In a few follow-up posts I hope to examine the Scriptural evidence in support of my City-Wilderness thesis, then to have a little fun demonstrating the presence of this principle in the works of non-biblical authors (Tolkien, the Beowulf poet, the Grimms, etc.) and finally, with their help, to interpret Scripture’s revelation about the ultimate fate of the Wilderness.

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3 Responses to The Great and Terrible Wilderness

  1. […] a previous post, I laid out my thesis for City-Wilderness typology in Scripture, and now intend to trace that same […]

  2. […] triumphal entry into Jerusalem, my series of comments on the nature of Biblical wilderness [see part 1 and part 2] reaches its discussion of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, and its titular hero, who […]

  3. […] nature of the wilderness in Scripture and everyday experience. The previous installments–an introduction, thoughts on Grimms‘ fairy tales, and a few more on Beowulf–though helpful, are not […]

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