I learned recently that the Hebrew word that is translated to “wilderness” in the Old Testament, midbar, comes from a root word that means “word” or “to speak.” One common understanding of this connection is that the wilderness is where you go to hear the voice of God.
Wilderness in the Old Testament
In the Bible, the wilderness is literal. Jacob wrestles with God on the bank of a river. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, where God meets them. Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert and is tempted by Satan, and then the angels minister to him.
God speaks in the wilderness.
Before any of those stories is Hagar. In Genesis 16, Sarai gives Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abram to conceive a son. Once pregnant, Hagar is not treated well by Sarai, and she runs away.
Alone, pregnant, and far from home, Hagar rests beside a spring of water. And there, an ‘angel of the Lord’ speaks to her.
The wilderness in our lives may not be quite as literal as Hagar’s, but we still experience times of being alone, abandoned, maybe even victimized by other people or by our circumstances. We may feel lost, not knowing where to go or what to do. That’s when we need to listen for God.
Of course, God, through his Word and Holy Spirit, is always speaking to us. But when we are confident in ourselves, when our lives are going exactly as planned, we often don’t listen as intently. We congratulate ourselves on a job well done and declare that God has blessed us. (And he has!)
When we are not quite so confident, when our lives are not turning out the way we thought, when sudden change brings us into turmoil, God becomes our lifeline. In tough times, we are desperate for God with an intensity that’s missing in good times. The wilderness inspires quiet, alert attention. We sit like Hagar, and we mourn our losses and wonder what to do next.
God speaks in the wilderness.
Listening to God
Sometimes, when God speaks to us, we don’t like what He says. Hagar had run away from Sarai. The angel of the Lord tells her that she must go back. She must face the mistress who treated her harshly and raise her son in what may be a hostile place for her. God asks her to do a very hard thing, and Hagar does it.
How many times do we find ourselves in the wilderness and realize that we need to face some hard thing? A tough decision, a person who has wronged us or whom we have wronged, a job we hate, a ministry that has failed? Often God leads us to face the very thing we most want to run away from.
God tells Hagar to go back, but He doesn’t leave her without comfort or hope. The angel of the Lord promises that her child will grow up and be the father of many; that Hagar’s pain and sacrifice will not be in vain. In response, Hagar—an escaped slave, a foreigner, a woman—gives God His first recorded name: El-Roiy, the God Who Sees.
“So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, 'You are a God of seeing,' for she said, 'Truly here I have seen Him who looks after me.'” (Genesis 16:13)
Years later, Hagar has another encounter with God in the wilderness, this time after she and her son Ishmael are sent away by Abraham, Sarah, and their son Isaac. Dying of thirst in the desert, Hagar is led to a spring of water and told once again that God has not forgotten her. The book of Genesis then leaves Hagar and follows the line of Abraham, but all the while, the tribe of Ishmael fulfills God’s promise to Hagar. God remains faithful even to those who are kicked out, harshly treated, or forgotten. He never forgets.
If you’re feeling alone in a wilderness today, God sees you. God knows you. God offers you hope in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who had his own moments in the wilderness and stands ready to comfort and guide. Listen. God speaks in the wilderness.
Find hope in the wilderness of life with Heidi Goehmann’s Finding Hope: From Brokenness to Restoration.