Not on Bread Alone

Not on Bread Alone

Israel is mostly rugged desert. The variety of Hebrew words for desert or wilderness indicates the significant role the landscape played in biblical history and imagery. For the Hebrews, the desert was far more formative than the sea, probably because of their desert roots (which caused them to fear the ocean) and because there were few seaports along the Mediterranean coast.

Most of the year, the desert is an uncultivated area receiving just enough rainfall during the winter months to sustain the nomadic shepherds who live there. The deserts of the Bible are more rock than sand and are often quite mountainous. The two most significant wilderness areas in Israel are the Judea Wilderness in the east and the Negev in the south.


The Judea Mountains form the middle section of the central mountain range of Israel. On the eastern side of this ridge, descending into the Great Rift Valley more than 1,300 feet below sea level, is the solitary, rocky wasteland of Judah. Because of the change in altitude, little rain falls here. The land is split by deep wadis formed by centuries of rain runoff in the mountains, and even shepherds find it difficult to live here. This wilderness borders the fertile mountain ridge for more than 50 miles, so the line between farmland and wilderness is a clear one. Throughout biblical times, shepherds lived on the fringes of the desert, and farmers worked the soil of the mountains. Villages like Bethlehem were able to sustain both shepherds (David) and farmers (Boaz and Ruth).


The Negev lies south of the Hebron Mountains, which form the southern section of Israel's central mountain range. This arid land (Negev means "dry") has few natural water sources and receives less than eight inches of rainfall in the north and less than half that amount in the south. Except for a few settlements that employ advanced methods to catch rain runoff, the Negev is nonarable, hospitable only to nomads.

The northern region of the Negev, from the Hebron Mountains to the Zin Wilderness, is good sheep country. Its rolling hills surround large, broad valleys, such as the Valley of Beersheba, where Abraham settled.

The central region of the Negev is rugged, with deep canyons in the Zin Wilderness. The climate and terrain are inhospitable, even to nomads, for most of the year. At least one scholar has suggested that the "valley of the shadow of death" (Ps. 23) may refer to the canyons of the central Negev.

The southern portion of the Negev is called the Wilderness of Paran in the Bible and is the most barren area of all.


It was in the Negev and the Sinai Wilderness to the south and west that the children of Israel wandered after God miraculously delivered them from Egypt. They received the Torah on Mount Sinai and built the tabernacle at the base of the mountain. When they reached the northern edge of the Negev, the Israelites sent spies into Canaan to discover the nature of their new home. Upon hearing the spies' reports of giants and huge fortified cities, the Israelites grew afraid and refused to enter the Promised Land. Because they were disobedient and lacked faith, God commanded his people to remain in the wilderness, where they wandered for 40 years, a year for each day the spies had been gone. The Bible records the place as "the vast and dreadful desert" (Deut. 8:15).

In the wilderness, God taught his people faith and trust, preparing them to live obediently in the Promised Land so that the world might know that he was God. He sent them water from rock, manna from heaven, and quail from the sea. Their feet did not swell (a remarkable blessing to anyone who has hiked in the Negev) and their clothes did not wear out (Deut. 8:4).

In the wilderness, God disciplined his people for their lack of faith, their disobedience, and their complaining. Moses recorded that God humbled them so they would learn to depend on him for everything, because "man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3-5).


The Jewish people's 40-year journey in the wilderness made a significant impact on them. The psalmist reminded the Hebrews of God's faithful love in the wilderness (Ps. 105:38-45 and 107:4-9) and warned them against repeating their earlier sins (Ps. 81:11-16 and 78:14-40). The prophets recalled to the people's minds the lessons learned there (Jer. 2:6 and 7:22-25; Micah 6:3-5), and the writers of the New Testament compared the experience to the lives of believers (Heb. 3:16-19; 1 Cor. 10:1-13). In Judea, when Jesus, as the new "Adam," faced the tempter on our behalf, he used the lessons of the wilderness to defeat him: "Man does not live on bread alone" (Matt. 4:4; see also Deut. 8:3) and "Do not put the LORD your God to the test" (Matt. 4:7; see also Deut. 6:16).


Because the wilderness was so close to settled areas, it became a refuge for those who sought solitude or safety from authorities. Here David hid from Saul's anger (1 Sam. 26), John the Baptist isolated himself from the religious practices of the day (Matt. 3), and Jesus faced the devil (Matt. 4). Here the Essenes labored over their scrolls and early Christians built monasteries, some of which still function today.

The wilderness was also associated with the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah 40:3-4 says, "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low." When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he came from the wilderness, which might have added to the crowd's fervor.


The wilderness image is a rich one in the Bible. It refers to our lives here on earth as we prepare for our "promised land" in heaven. It portrays those difficult times in our lives when we learn to trust the faithful provision of our God. The wilderness also offers a picture of God's disciplining us for our sinful lives. And it reminds us of the Messiah's eventual return.

In the wilderness, we learn that we cannot live on bread alone.