Towards a Theology of the Wilderness in Genesis

The lack of scholarly attention given to the concept of wilderness in Genesis accords with its relative use in the narrative. Occurring only seven times throughout (Gen 14:6; 16:7; 21:14, 20, 21; 36:24; 37:22), מִדְבָּר contributes seemingly little to the overall message of the book. Where comments have been offered, they usually focus on the Hagar/Ishmael narratives (16:1-16; 21:8-21), which contain four of the seven uses. Specifically, discussions note an etiological purpose to the wilderness setting, as the narrator explains the origin of the Ishmaelites. More recently, the wilderness has also contributed to some more theological conclusions, as several have noted correspondences between the experience of the slave woman, and that of Moses in Exodus.

Notwithstanding the validity of these observations, a reexamination of מִדְבָּר in Genesis may have more to offer. The argument of this paper is that the wilderness is a theologically significant locale, indicating a disassociation from God’s plan of redemption. Insomuch as geography is a function of the narrative’s primary focus, the promised seed, the wilderness represents a place wherein God’s plan will not progress.

This argument is made by way of a more synthetic reading of the text than previous studies have offered. Specifically, the Hagar/Ishmael narratives (16:1-16; 21:8-21) are read in light of the prevailing covenants with Abraham (15:1-21; 17:1-27). A progression is noted, whereby originally Hagar returns to the family home (16:9, 15), due to the prior absence of any promise concerning the heir’s mother. However, subsequent to the announcement that Sarah will give birth to the child (17:16), Hagar is driven into the wilderness, which becomes the permanent dwelling place of Ishmael (21:12, 14, 21).

The theological significance of this movement is then noted by comparing Hagar’s trial in the wilderness with Abraham’s, on the mountain (22:1-19). In light of the many correspondences between 21:8-21 and 22:1-19, the difference in locale becomes instructive. The wilderness functions as the antithesis to the notion of sacred space, established previously Genesis. That is, the wilderness inheres a negative value, with respect to God’s plan of redemption.

Finally, consideration is given to the brief mention of wilderness in the story of Joseph (37:22). The incidental comment regarding the absence of water (37:24), coupled with the role played by the Ishmaelites infer a connection with 21:8-34. As such, Reuben’s suggestion to put Joseph in the wilderness is significant. He intends to save his life, yet distance the favored son from the privileged position of primogeniture, which he subsequently squandered by his previous deeds (35:22 cf. 49:3-4).

By observing how מִדְבָּר contributes to the narrative progression of the text, this article will develop a theology of the wilderness in Genesis. Noting the relationship between the Hagar/Ishmael narratives and the covenants God makes with Abraham, the subsequent testing of the patriarch, and the story of Joseph, the significance of the wilderness emerges. Specifically, within Genesis it is antithetical to the notion sacred space, and a place wherein God’s plan of redemption will not progress.

4 thoughts on “Towards a Theology of the Wilderness in Genesis”

  1. Twiss, Towards a Theology of the Wilderness in Genesis
    Intriguing, but the contrast with sacred space isn’t possible until Exodus, apart from theophanies; I’m not sure how far this will fly. There is no mention of relevant literature or specifics points of dis/agreement either.

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