Saturday, April 25, 2020


I recently wrote an essay for the journal Tradition entitled "Words of Ailing, Words of Healing" where I discussed the origins of Hebrew words relating to illness and health, in the light of the current pandemic.

One of the words I mentioned was dever דבר - "plague." After discussing the word for pandemic, magefa מגפה, I continued:

A more common Biblical word for plague is dever. This word does not appear to be related to the very common word devar meaning “word, speech.” More surprisingly, it is not cognate with the word hadbara – “extermination.” That word comes from a third Hebrew root, which meant “to follow behind” or “to push forward.” This meaning led to the word midbar – “desert,” which was a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze. In the more intense hifil form of the verb, hidbir, “pushing forward” became “subdue, overwhelm,” and from there came the meaning “to eliminate, exterminate.” (“Yadber sonenu,” we recite in the Prayer for the I.D.F., asking God to “subdue our enemies.”) 

I wrote that midbar מדבר in English is "desert". But another common translation is "wilderness." Which is correct?

Well, in some ways, this is more a question about English semantics than Hebrew. Let's look at what the two English words mean.

Today most people would say that desert is a barren land, likely arid, and probably hot and full of sand. A wilderness, on the other hand, is full of wild vegetation, but not settled by humans.

However, these were not the original meanings of the words. "Desert" was an abandoned place (think of the verb "to desert" = "to abandon".)  Only in the 20th century did desert become associated with aridity. Before that there are many examples of desert being used in places that were clearly not arid (think of "desert island", which was the original phrase, not "deserted island", despite the increase in use of the latter recently.)

Wilderness also meant something similar - an uninhabited or uncultivated place. So while there may have been differences in nuance between desert and wilderness, until relatively recently, they were pretty much synonyms.

So if both words are used to translate midbar, that shouldn't concern us too much. But that said, what was the nature of the biblical word midbar?

The answer is found in what I wrote above, that midbar originally meant "a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze." This meaning is evident in Shemot 3:1 -

וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת־הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה׃
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the midbar, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 

If Moses drove his flocks there, the land was not entirely barren (but not settled). As Sarna in the JPS commentary writes, midbar is "a region of uninhabited and unirrigated pastureland." Cassuto, following Onkelos (who interprets it as "choice pasture") , goes so far as to translate the word as "grassland." This may seem strange, but verses like this one show that a midbar did not have to be arid at all:

Fear not, O beasts of the field, for the pastures in the midbar are clothed with grass. The trees have borne their fruit; fig tree and vine have yielded their strength. (Yoel 2:22) 

The Sinai midbar that sustained the Israelites for 40 years also fits the definition - it was uninhabited, but could support the nomadic tribes (with some help from above.) The focus on "uninhabited" is captured in the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) which writes:

Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the midbar cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, "the midbar of Sinai."

There are however, other words to describe a particularly barren land in biblical Hebrew - arava ערבה and yeshimon ישימון.  Those words are offered as synonyms for a midbar that is particularly desolate, in Devarim 32:10 and Yirmiyahu 50:12.

So a midbar can be a desert - even according to the contemporary meaning. It can also be a wilderness - although a midbar in the Middle East is not likely to look like a wilderness in other parts of the world. As often happens, there is not a perfect translation. Just one more reason to try to read the Bible (or any book) when possible in the original language... 

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