As the weekly cycle begins the Book of Numbers — Bamidbar [“wilderness” or “desert”] — this is a good time to pick up The Biography of Ancient Israel: National Narratives in the Bible, by Ilana Pardes.
If you only read one book, ever, about Torah, consider making it this one.
This is rare combination of readable and scholarly, offering a truly fresh perspective on the Torah. Robert Alter says, “Pardes has a remarkable gift for asking new questions about familiar texts and providing fresh insights into old problems.” I say: this will change the way you read Torah forever.
The book is part of a series called “Contraversions: Critical Studies in Jewish Literature, Culture, and Society,” it is published by Univ. of California Press and is now available in paperback and e-book.
From the introduction:
The history of the children of Israel, I propose, is shaped as a biography. The nation — especially in Exodus and Numbers where the primary questions about origin and singularity of the nation are raised — is personified; it is a character with a distinct voice (represented at times in a singular mode); it moans and groans, it is euphoric at times, complains frequently, and rebels against Moses and God time and again. It has a collective body — a heart that needs to be circumcised (Deut. 30:6) and, above all, a stiff, unyielding neck (Exod. 32). Israel has a life story: it was conceived in the days of Abraham; its miraculous birth took place with the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea; then came a long period of childhood and restless adolescence in the wilderness; and finally adulthood was approached with the conquest of Canaan.
I have found the chapters on “Suckling in the Wilderness” and “Crossing the Threshold” particularly important. [Kol Isha members, BTW, you’re welcome to borrow my copy.]