The wilderness was not a wide, flat area of nothing but sand, as the word “desert” (3:1 TEV) may imply. Rather it was a mostly dry and barren region through which Moses was leading the flock in search of seasonal pasturage. There would, however, be occasional patches of moisture and vegetation; but for the most part it was uncultivated. Nomads and their herds inhabited certain areas of the wilderness. In cultures where a wilderness is unknown, one may translate the term with a descriptive phrase; for example, “a dry, barren land,” “a rocky region,” “a place where people don’t settle,” “a place where no house is,” and so on. Translators may prefer to borrow a term from a national language and explain it in a footnote.
Osborn, Noel D., and Howard A. Hatton. A Handbook on Exodus. New York: United Bible Societies, 1999. Print. UBS Handbook Series.