Deserts are places of just enough. Just enough to keep the hardiest species alive. Most humans, not included.
Three years living in the desert changed my initial assumption that they are nothing but hot, ugly, lifeless, boring wastelands. Those years were my driest and hardest and out of them just enough survived.
Just enough produces beauty.
I would rise before the sun to watch its entire ascent and the masterpiece it painted in thin air as the stillest hours of the night eased into morning. It took time for my eyes to adjust and appreciate the muted colors and the delicate balance of life. The plants space themselves with precision to allow their roots to find the minimum water needed to survive. The seasonality is the work of an artist allowing the flora and fauna to dance on the edge of disaster but instead live another day.
So I thought I knew what I was walking into when I headed into Israel’s Negev Desert. Everywhere else had looked similar to home, wouldn’t the desert look like the Californian and Nevadan deserts I’d come to love?
And it did . . . but it didn’t.
The canyon was a desert canyon, yet in the sun the limestone walls glared a more brilliant white than I’d ever seen. The thin black, horizontal seams of flint threading through them looked drawn on they were so perfect. There was more water than I expected at Ein Avdat, which explained the grove of poplars springing out of the wall of the canyon.
These are trees planted by streams of water. Their leaves don’t wither because their roots stretch up to 20 feet over rock to soak up just enough water to get them through even when the stream runs dry.
This is the land of the psalmists. This is why when my soul felt brittle and words of truth thudded dully off my ears the psalms resonated to the core of my being.
And as I emerged from the canyon and found myself deep in the Wilderness of Zin—the very land the Israelites wandered for 38 of their 40 wilderness years—I swallowed hard.
Who was I to judge? My desert was difficult. Their desert . . . was desolate. And rocky. My size eight feet struggled to find a place to step on rock-less ground. I would go a little crazy trying to clear a place for my 5’1” self to lie down—how did millions of them camp? And what did they drink? Within 15 minutes I was trying to figure out how much of my water I had left after the hike and how long I could make it last. There didn’t appear to be accessible water in any direction as far as I could see. It was miles and miles of rocky nothingness and cloudless 100°F heat.
I knelt down and picked up a jagged piece of flint and looked over the innumerable rocks. Did this flash through the Pharisees’ minds 85 miles away on the edge of Jerusalem when Jesus said, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19.40)?
Two days in the desert reshaped my understanding of sweeping sections of the Bible. David’s green pastures aren’t the lush, alpine meadows of my mind’s eye. They are the just enough gray-green, scrubby plants fighting up through the rocky desert ground shepherds guide their sheep through even today.
And the still waters aren’t bubbling brooks in the soft forest of fairy tales; they are the miraculous springs in the desert and the harshly hewn valleys offering a respite of water and shade in the wilderness. The same places that become death traps when the flashfloods course off the flats and rage through the wadis. The still waters and valley of the shadow of death are one and the same. Complacency is costly in the desert.
There’s nothing romantic about the wilderness of the Israelites, of the prophets, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, but it is stunning in its hard-edged beauty. There is always beauty in a place that can only be survived by the grace of God.
In the desert I cling to God’s generous just enough.