Pilgrimage Reflections: The Judean Desert

Wadi Qelt: Psalm 23

From the viewpoint on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, you can easily see the vastness of the Judean Desert to the north and west. Leaving before dawn, we left Jerusalem for Wadi Qelt, a short drive from the heart of the city. The stark change in scenery is impressive, changing from a vegetative, mountainous, urban landscape to a yellow, rocky, desert scene almost instantly. A riverine gulch in the West Bank, once perhaps used to travel between Jericho and Jerusalem by individuals such as King David, Wadi Qelt eventually runs into the Jordan River near Jericho and the Dead Sea.

Stumbling out of the bus, we followed a dirt path up the hillside in silence. We gathered for a brief prayer and a reading of Psalm 23. Given almost an hour for our own time of prayer and reflection, we scattered to find our own ways to await the sunrise and listen for God, the air still cool. For those who climbed up to the top of the hillside, far in the distance was Jericho to the west, the oldest city in the world dating back 10,000 years, almost 900 feet below sea level. In July, there was no water running into the Jordan – no green pastures, no still waters, only valleys of shadow. And while this is a small desert in comparison to many others in the world, being in the midst of it was truly humbling.

As I found a spot to plant myself on a rock, I looked down to find a small, white cockle shell, a long ago home to a snail or some creature when the area had been covered by water. Imagining that was unreal. Imagining Jesus alone in a place like this for “40 days and 40 nights” was unreal – how could one survive? Imagining the Hebrews wandering through such a desert led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for 40 years was unreal. Any amount of time – long or short – left alone to wander in this wilderness would be hard. No wonder they complained. But I felt a sense of calmness and peace, the majesty of God in a place where it would not seem life could survive.

As the sun began appear on the horizon above the “mountains,” the baa of a sheep broke the stillness. Soon a rooster crowed. Then a dog barked. The silence of the desert was soon full of the bleating of sheep and barking of dogs. (The Judean Desert is home to a small but visible nomadic Bedouin population who can be seen grazing animals on the hilltops. As the light grew strong, I could see a camp behind me with a large pen of sheep eager to be freed for breakfast, dogs running around them.) Then it was time to regather with the group; a table had been set in the presence of some Bedouins who had appeared, one a small boy with some jewelry, another youngster with a donkey, an elder with some cloth. We prayed, sang, broke bread, and shared a cup. The heat of the sun began to bear down as we departed, fully fed in body and spirit.

The Temptation of Jesus: Matthew 4:1-11

Later we went to the Mount of Temptation. Accessible by cable car, we could see the valley below and Tell Jericho (the ancient ruins of the city). Atop the mountain is the Monastery of the Temptation built into the cliff face. This Greek monastery was built around the grotto where the Devil is said to have tempted Jesus.

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