Temptation in the Judean Desert
Summer, 30 AD

 

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil" (Luke 4:1-2).

Among the unanswered questions about Jesus' identity is whether he, as God in the flesh, is vulnerable to the same temptations faced by all people. The Gospel writers record a series of encounters with Satan that represent most of those faced by us in our everyday lives. This was no academic exercise. As he does with everyone, Satan confronted Jesus when he was most vulnerable.


In the footsteps of Jesus...


After his baptism by John, Jesus "was led by the Spirit in the desert." The "desert" mentioned by Luke would seem to be the desolate landscape between Jericho and Jerusalem, and there Satan looked for opportunities to tempt him. (Below) Judean desert from the road between Jericho and Jerusalem.

Jesus left the warm Jordan valley, well-below sea level, and ascended the desolate highlands to the west. The brown rolling hills, only sparsely dotted with green shrubs, were barren compared to the cultivated farmland around Nazareth. Broom trees, erect and scraggly, grew only to about eight feet, providing scant shade. Centuries earlier, the prophet Elijah, on the run from the vengeance of Jezebel, sat down under a sparse broom tree and prayed that he might die: "I have had enough, Lord," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors" (1 Kings 19:4).

With pilgrim's walking staff in hand, Jesus trudged through rain and occasional snow, blustery winds and damp cold, relieved only by the pale sun. The limestone made for rough walking, even for one accustomed to traveling on foot. Some of the paths had been washed away by water from sudden rain squalls erupting through the ravines (wadis). He had heard about the bands of roving thugs that preyed on lone, unprotected travelers. Perhaps speaking from experience he would later tell a parable of a man robbed and beaten by such predators on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30-37). This area was also famous for its lions.

After wandering through the area for "forty days and forty nights" (a number recalling the experiences of Moses and Elijah, also the 40 years of Israel's testing in the desert after the Exodus). Huddling in caves at night and fragile from a lack of sleep, Jesus was extremely hungry and soon noticed the countless flat, rounded stones littering the desert floor. One stone in particular resembled the loaves of bread baked by his mother in his Nazareth home. Satan noticed it too and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." Satan's request for a miracle would seem a perfect way for Jesus to show that he was indeed the Son of God, as revealed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. But Jesus refused. Instead, he used a scriptural reference to state that he could not be reduced to a physical need: "It is written (in Deuteronomy 8:3): 'Man does not live on bread alone.'"

Satan persisted; he took Jesus to a "high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world." He further stated that he would give Jesus "all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus responded with: "It is written (in Deuteronomy 6:13): 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'" (Below) so-called "Mount of Temptation" near Palestinian-controlled Jericho. Christian tradition has identified this prominent mountain west of the tell of ancient Jericho as the site of this temptation.

Nearby was the wealthy city of New Testament Jericho, now represented by ruins called Tulul Abu al-Alayiq, some 2 miles southwest. The houses of New Testament Jericho could be compared to the best of Pompeii and Satan may well have pointed to them as representing all the wealthy cities of the world. (Above right) foundations of Herod the Great's third palace at Tulul Abu al-Alayiq, the site of wealthy New Testament Jericho at the time of Jesus. In the distance is modern Jericho.

Lastly, Satan led Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple . "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

(Above) 1 to 50 scale model of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum. The "highest point of the Temple" could have been either the roof of the main sanctuary itself or the southeast corner of the Temple colonnade, from which there was a drop of 100 feet to the Kidron Valley below.

Although Satan correctly quoted scripture (Psalm 91:11-12), he misused the passage: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone").

Jesus again answered Satan with a scripture passage, citing Deuteronomy 6:16: "It says: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

In all these encounters, Satan used conditional clauses, attempting to twist things to his purposes: "If you are the Son of God..." "If you worship me, it will all be yours..."
On the other hand, God used unconditional declarations: "You are my beloved son..."

In each instance, Jesus countered these testings with the one powerful tool everyone has at their disposal the word of God. He thus demonstrated his qualifications to be the Savior for all who would accept him.

When Satan had finished all this tempting, he left Jesus, seeking another opportune time.

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