The Desert: A Haunt of Demons

The desert was never far from the thin little strip of land which we call Palestine. Indeed, the vast Arabian Desert would certainly have swallowed her up long ago if she did not safely sit upon two mountain ranges running parallel to the Mediterranean coast. These mountains shut out the desert on the East and capture the rains and mists of the Great Sea on the West which feed the rivers and streams that tumble down into its valleys. Still, the Israelites never forgot the fact that the ever encroaching sands of the wastelands were at their back door, for every once in a while the desert would blow its hot, ominous breath that “neither fans nor cleanses” (Jer. 4:11, the Sirocco,” or east wind that comes off from the desert) to remind them of its presence. Those who ventured out into it could not help but experience the horror of formlessness and void (Gen. 1:2, tōhû wābōhû) and shutter in dread before the low wailing of the wind as it passes through the barren rocks (cf. Deut. 32:10, ûbtōhû yelēl yešimōn). Lilith the night hag was feared to haunt these lifeless places along with other unsavory creatures who let out lonely cries as they preyed upon one another for food (Isa. 34:13 14). Those banished to the desert, such as Ishmael (Gen. 21) and Esau (Gen. 27:39ff.), were not looked upon with envy. It was the land that felt the curse of the fall the greatest, and theologically represented the extreme opposite of the paradise for which humanity was made.

In our narrative, the Amalelites, a nomadic people of the desert fringes, attacked Israel (Ex. 17:8-16). They were the descendents of Esau, and took on the nature of their harsh environment. Highly mobile, they made seasonal forages in Palestine as elsewhere to raid. Every encounter Israel has with Amalek is hostile in the Old Testament. As dwellers of chaos they represent on a spiritual level demons that attack with intent of sucking the life out of God’s covenant people in their vulnerable state of testing. This is the harsh reality of the desert. This is the harsh reality of our lives in this life that can be compared to a desert journey on our way to the Promised Land. We will be attacked by demonic powers.

Moses represents our deep interior spirit out of which we live our spiritual life, our core “self.” Aaron represents our will. Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up to a high hill. This is understood as an act of prayer which places us on a high vantage point. Demons are invisible and can be perceived only in prayer. The foe is powerful and stubborn, vicious and even desperate. Israel, representing our bodies and emotions that are so closely tied to our physical nature, succumbs to the enemy when Moses wearies in holding up his hand in prayer. We prevail when we engage our wills in the act of prayer, for the spirit succeeds only when the will supports it. Everyone would pray if it felt good and was easy all the time. Prayer is many things, but is fundamentally an act of war in which we must engage our wills. It is no coincidence that the two places where we have a clear window into Jesus’ prayer life are in his desert temptation at the very beginning of His ministry and in the garden at the end of His ministry. Both times He was fighting demons with all the might of his will!

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