In the Wilderness

What is wilderness? Especially the desert wilderness in and around the ancient states of Judea and Israel? Most Europeans and Americans share a common impression: Near total desolation, land that barely supports life in the most primitive conditions.

Would the Judeans and Galileeans have had the same perspective in the first century - BCE and CE? Before attempting to answer that question, consider the following events:

God banished Adam from the garden of Eden [into the wilderness].

Lot grew and dwelt in the wilderness.

Moses fled to the wilderness (Midian) to escape Pharaoh.

Moses returned from the wilderness to free the Hebrews.

Moses led the Hebrews to safety in the wilderness (Sinai).

Joshua led to tribes from the wilderness to conquer a homeland.

Six hundred Benjaminites fled through the desert to reach the rock Rimmon

Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness.

David fled to the wilderness to escape Saul.

David fled to the wilderness during Absalom's revolt.

The Hasmoneans (Maccabees) went to the wilderness to escape Antiochus Epiphanes

The Hasmoneans came from the wilderness to recreate the state of Judea.

Herod built a palace/fortress (Masada) in the wilderness.

Judas, a Galilean, lead a revolt against Rome

Numerous revolts during 1 CE through 60 CE.

The great Jewish war against Rome; 66 -73 CE/.

Lukuas lead a revolt in 115 - 117 CE.

Simon Bar Kochba lead a revolt in 130 - 135 CE.

In all of these events, the wilderness represents a refuge; a place of protection from their enemies; an opportunity to grow; a space to organize resources to regain their rightful places. Harsh? Definitely but, with the help of their God, a place of nourishment and regrowth. Also, the wilderness was inhospitable to their enemies.

The Judeans and Galileans could use the wilderness to organize opposition to oppressive invaders with little interference. This strategy was very effective during the Maccabeen period and was repeated numerous times during the post Herodian period - 1 through 135 CE.

So, what would a typical Judean or Galilean have thought when he heard that someone was in the wilderness or went into the wilderness? I think that he would have automatically assumed that the person was organizing a revolt against Roman occupation. And with very good reason since there were at least four major revolts and many more minor ones. Judas the Galilean, Simon Bar Kochba, and a few other leaders were considered as Messiahs. That is a Messiah from the Jewish perspective; a military leader who would restore independence from foreign oppressors. Very different from the Christian concept of a spiritual redeemer.

And now for a slight shift in perspective.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea. Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness.

Would John and Jesus have been regarded as revolutionaries? Almost definitely: The priesthood and Herod Antipas certainly considered them as such. This assumption says nothing about the actual goals and methods of John and Jesus; only how they would have been perceived. But the priesthood and the Roman government would certainly react as if they were organizing a revolt. And they did with the typical punishment for revolutionaries: Beheading by the Jews and Crucifiction by the Romans!

But could John and Jesus have been leading a revolt? Later Christian interpretation has always been emphatically NO! But the gospels contain passages that could be interpreted as YES!

I came not to send peace, but a sword.
He that hath no sword, let him buy one.
They said to him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?
One of them drew a sword, and smote a servant of the high priest.

And what of the statement by John: He that succeeds me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. This is usually interpreted in a spiritual sense. But in a military sense, this could be paraphrased as: The prince (general) will come to lead you; I am only the recruiting sergeant. In this sense, John's objective is to indoctrinate potential revolutionaries and provide basic training so that Jesus can lead them in a revolt.

These passages appear to indicate that John and Jesus could have had more of a military orientation than is acceptable to the Christian churches. However, with almost two millennia of emotional investment is the absolute peaceful character of Jesus, I doubt that the churches can ever change.



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