I cared for you in the wilderness, in the land of drought.
— Hosea 13:5
The Arabah (Arabic), or Aravah (Hebrew) is a geographic area south of the Dead Sea basin. Along with other desert or wilderness regions featured prominently in Scripture, the Arabah is used both figuratively and literally. Each narrative that unfolds in these areas of isolation combine key elements of good storytelling: character development, setting, conflict, plot and theme. Far more than just tales to set our imaginations soaring, they offer us valuable truths for our own spiritual journeys. The Arabah experience is, more than anything else, a place where God tests and refines His people—a place where victories can be realized that are nothing short of miraculous.
Consider Moses. It was while tending sheep in Midian, the territory east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea and southward through the desert wilderness of the Arabah, that he encountered God in a new way. Surely, it was no accident that he was separated from all the distractions of life, for only in isolation was he free to encounter God in a burning bush and receive the charge to bring the Israelites out of their Egyptian captivity. The wilderness was, in many ways, a place of other “firsts.” It was where the Law, The Ten Commandments, was given and where God came down to dwell among His people in the desert Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting. The desert wilderness was where God revealed his guiding Presence in the pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. It was also where He provided the wanderers with shoes that never wore out and where He fed them with manna from heaven. Such revelations of God’s glory should have inspired faith and obedience, but instead, the people rebelled time after time and failed to learn the lessons God had for them. Because of this, most never got to witness the beauty of their destiny.
Not all fell into sin, though. Joshua and Caleb willingly submitted to the desert process without grumbling, complaining or losing faith in God. “He [God] will bring us into this land and give it to us,” Joshua declared in Numbers 14:8. Even if he might not have understood God’s plans at the time, Joshua had no doubt that God would deliver on His promises. As a result, he was chosen to succeed Moses as leader of the entire Hebrew nation. It is worth noting that Joshua was “filled with the spirit of wisdom” in the proving grounds of the wilderness. It was an attribute of incalculable worth that he would surely need to fulfill his new assignment. (See Deuteronomy 34:9).
There are many others who benefitted from such experiences. When Elijah went into the wilderness for 40 days to commune with God, he found Him in the silence. David did as well when he fled from Saul in the remote caves of the En-gedi or the wilderness places of Ziph, Maon, and Paran. Although isolated and desperate at times, David, arguably the author of many of the Psalms, conveyed his total dependence on God with some of the most evocative words of hope-filled anguish we find anywhere. “To you, Lord, I call; you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me” (Psalm 28:1); “My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes” (Psalm 38:10). His wilderness tests taught David not to lean on his own understanding and strength, but to trust in God’s sovereign power. Some of the Bible’s most achingly beautiful pictures of a soul longing for intimate fellowship with God may very well have come out of a wilderness experience: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, was also no stranger to desert experiences. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). After his baptism and just prior to the launching of his own ministry, Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. In His victory over the great deceiver, He gave us a model of how to defeat the enemy and grow in spite of, or perhaps even as the result of, our own wilderness experiences. The uncomfortable truth is that God uses our trials to transform and equip us for greater service. For that reason, we would do well to understand them as opportunities for growth and spiritual maturity by asking Him, “What am I to learn from this?”
God invites us to trust Him even in the darkest night of our soul where He reveals Himself as all we need. Rather than wringing our hands, He asks that we yield to His all-sufficient care. As the timeless devotional, Streams in the Desert, reminds us, it is the dry, desolate places of our own personal Arabahs that drive us to the throne of grace where showers of blessing await us. “We see a large stone and have no idea that it covers the source of a spring. We see a rocky area and never imagine that it is hiding a fountain. God leads me into hard and difficult places, and it is there I realize I am where eternal streams abide . . . It is all untraveled and unknown ground to us, but He knows it all . . . He knows the . . . the rocky paths that make our feet ache, the hot and shadeless stretches that bring us to exhaustion.”
In his article, “The Wilderness Experience,” Dr. D. W. Ekstrand reminds us that while God always takes care of His people in the wilderness, it is a place we are meant to pass through. If we allow ourselves to remain in the wilderness, we will eventually die. The wilderness has but one goal: to sift us, reduce us, and strip us down to Christ alone. So, if you, like the psalmist, find yourself asking, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” then put your hope in the God who delights in impossibilities. “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me? (Jeremiah 32:27).
Heavenly Father, remind us that the wilderness and desert places will be glad, and “the Arabah will rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). As we submit to Your will, may we discover profound and rewardingly intimate communion with You. Amen.
— Francine Thomas