Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written,
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11 – NRSV)
“The customary title for Matt 4:1–11 and its parallels (Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13) is the ‘Temptation of Jesus’. A better title, one more appropriate to the biblical basis of the narrative in the Book of Deuteronomy, is the ‘Testing of God’s Son’. The concern of the passage is not so much whether the devil can lure Jesus into this or that sin as it is the portrayal of Jesus as God’s Son ‘who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb 4:15). Where Israel in the wilderness failed, Jesus passes every test.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 68.)
“There is a short temptation narrative in Mark 1:12–13 and significantly longer accounts in Matthew and Luke. These two are very similar, though the second and third temptations are in the reverse order, a fact that has never been explained satisfactorily. All the suggestions seem to give psychological reasons for the variation, and in the end these must remain subjective estimates. There are many slight linguistic differences, and if they are following a common source one of these writers (or perhaps both) has made significant alterations. The account must go back to Jesus himself: nobody else was present when the temptations took place. All three accounts speak of the Holy Spirit in the opening of the story, which means that there was a divine purpose in it all.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 70-71.)
the wilderness: This echoes the experience of the Chosen People when they were called out of Egypt: “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)
to be to be tempted by the devil: The “tempting” is a “testing”. Daniel Harrington notes: “In the OT ‘testing’ refers to the process by which the covenant partner is scrutinized to determine his fidelity in keeping the agreement. In the context of Israel’s relationship with God the process will reveal whether Israel is faithful or not. God can test Israel, but Israel must not test God. Here the testing will show forth the fidelity of the Son of God. ‘Devil’ is the English equivalent of the Greek diabolos, which serves as a synonym for Satan (‘tester, tempter’). Whereas in pre-exilic times God tests Israel, in post-exilic times that function is given over to Satan (see Job 1–2; Zech 3:1–2; 1 Chr 21:1). The assumption is that the devil remains under God’s ultimate control. In the case of Jesus the Spirit of God leads him into the wilderness, and so makes the testing possible.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 66.)
forty days and forty nights: This could refer to the forty years the people spent in the desert – see above quotation to Deuteronomy. It could also refer to the forty day fasts of Moses – see Deuteronomy 9:18 – or Elijah – see 1 Kings 19:8.
In the Bible, the wilderness has both positive and negative meanings. It depends on the context. Generally, however, there are two strong strands of meaning associated with the wilderness. The first is that it is a place of testing, even death. Thus we read in the Book of Deuteronomy that the wilderness is “great and terrible” (1:19), a place of “flinty rock” and “no water” populated by “fiery serpents and scorpions” (8:15), a “howling waste” (32:10). The second is that it is a place of encounter with God – even intimacy – and therefore a life-giving place. Thus we read in the Prophets: “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness” (Amos 2:10); “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2).
This tension of the wilderness – between dying and living – is always present to us. Can we live without dying? I am speaking of the dying that accompanies our getting out of bed in the morning, the dying of patience, of care and concern, of bearing the tedium of our days, of carrying through our duties gracefully, of living with incompleteness and loneliness, and so on.
Show me a magnanimous and compassionate human being and I will show you someone who has “found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2). Show me a mean spirited and selfish person and I will show you someone who is refusing to submit to the wilderness experience. The lesson of the Bible is clear: The way to the Promised Land goes via the wilderness. The way to becoming truly human goes via the wilderness too.
This can be daunting. W H Auden puts it as only a poet can:
Afraid of our living task,
the dying which the coming day will ask. (“Horae Canonicae,” “Prime”.)
A closer look at the Hebrew language here can give us light and strength. The Hebrew word for wilderness is miḏbār, which word in turn shares roots with dāḇār, which means “word”. In the silence of the wilderness, God speaks: “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” This is deeply symbolic for two reasons. In the first place, Jesus is identifying with the Chosen People whom God led out of Egypt into the wilderness to forge a Covenant with them. In the second place, Jesus is identifying with all human beings in their necessity to go through the wilderness on their way to being human.
How would you name the wilderness in your life? Can you think of your wilderness as a place in which God will “speak tenderly” to you?