There is something about the desert — as a site of temptation, but also as one of opportunity — that pervades Biblical literature. After all, after the Lord delivers the Israelites from Egypt, their story isn’t one of “milk and honey,” per se. Instead, it’s a story of wandering. It’s a story about forty years in the desert — one marked by a deep and abiding faith in God, but also by a repeated straying from the faith received on Mt. Sinai. A similar story could be told about Christ’s parallel forty days in the desert. His wanderings prepare the Lord for His ministry, yes, but Jesus also faces genuine and powerful temptation.
Why the desert? What about it drives spiritual reflection, and what about it invites temptation? The first thing we notice might be the harshness of desert life — particularly in ancient times, it was not easy to get by in extreme climates. The days are scorching; the nights, freezing. The pain of the desert could drive one in two different directions. After all, it’s true that pain and difficulty often drive us to do truly awful things to one another. But the Biblical tradition has always been attuned to the ways in which the desert might force us to find new, lasting sources of joy.
The desert brings isolation, too. Both the Israelites and, later, Christ, are stranded from their homes, alienated from the food and customs that mark their tradition. They wander. In some cases, as is seen throughout the Old Testament, wandering results in a spiritual and social unmooring. In others, that can often be found in the same stories, wandering results in believers clinging more closely to the One always at their side, the One from whom they are not alienated.
So the desert is remarkable in more ways than one. It makes sense that so many flashpoints in Israel’s spiritual journey, and even its existence, occur against that backdrop. But we can find many places like the desert, whose cruelty and strange alienation can turn us back towards the source of our lives or far away from it.
Where is our desert? Some examples come to mind: for instance, we are wandering through a disease outbreak that continues to take lives and continues to push us away from those we love. Isolation and distancing are, rightly, the words of the hour. And there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. For so many, COVID-19 has been and continues to be a desert.
Where is your desert? And where is your wandering taking you? Back to the source of life, or away from it? Perhaps in both directions? It’s worth reflecting on. We are an Easter people, but are we not also a desert people— wandering, hoping to find our way in the vastness of a strange land?
Stephen McNulty is a first-year at Yale in Pauli Murray College studying Political Science and Religious Studies.