Reflections on the Book of Numbers

Publisher: Schocken
Through the magnificent literary, scholarly, and psychological analysis of the text that is her trademark, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg tackles the enduring puzzlement of the book of Numbers. What should have been for the Israelites a brief journey from Mount Sinai to the Holy Land becomes a forty-year death march. Both before and after the devastating report of the Spies, the narrative centers on the people's desire to return to slavery in Egypt. At its heart are speeches of complaint and lament. But in the narrative of the book of Numbers that is found in mystical and Hasidic sources, the generation of the wilderness emerges as one of extraordinary spiritual experience, fed on miracles and nurtured directly by God: a generation of ecstatic faith, human partners in an unprecedented conversation with the Deity. Drawing on kabbalistic sources, the Hasidic commentators depict a people who transcend prudent considerations in order to follow God into the wilderness, where their spiritual yearning comes to full expression.

Is there a way to integrate this narrative of dark murmurings, of obsessive fantasies of a return to Egypt, with the celebration of a love-intoxicated wilderness discourse? What effect does the cumulative trauma of slavery, the miracles of Exodus, and the revelation at Sinai have on a nation that is beginning to speak? In Bewilderments, one of our most admired biblical commentators suggests fascinating answers to these questions.


The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of (lit.) In-the-Wilderness. Although the Israelite wilderness experience begins in Exodus and concludes in Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers claims the interior of this...
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“Celebrated for her brilliant teaching and her dazzling skill in interpreting Bible narratives, Zornberg offers masterful midrashic readings of biblical texts. Through psychological insight, Jewish philosophy, and comparative literary analysis, she plumbs the depths of rabbinic interpretation. Those who have had the pleasure of reading her previous works will be delighted to know that Bewilderments has just been published.  New readers will also savor this commentary.” —Lilith

“This is not a simple retelling of the book of Numbers but, rather, a commentary of a high order based on artful Hebrew prose and poetry. Zornberg displays her own superior hermeneutic skills as she calls on the teachings of vaunted rabbinic authorities, Midrashic tradition, and the homilies of Hasidic masters. [She also] incorporates psychiatry, philosophy, and world literature into the study of Holy Writ. A powerful, important textual deconstruction of the mystical fourth book of the Old Testament.” Kirkus Reviews
“Zornberg’s background allows her to draw from English and European literature and from the most recent literary and psychoanalytic sources, as well as from her deep knowledge of Jewish texts, particularly classical rabbinic midrash and modern Hasidic writers.” —The Jerusalem Post Magazine
“Zornberg is among the leading, and perhaps the most original, biblical commentators at work today. Biblical scholarship usually stays hidden within the academy or appeals to a limited audience, but Zornberg’s penetrating takes on the Torah, interweaving broad literary and analytic sources, are increasingly finding their way to a wider public.” —The Jewish Week
“Zornberg has an immense body of knowledge at her command. She has the unique ability to draw on everything from postmodern literary criticism, art history, and psychoanalysis, even as she remains mindful of classical rabbinic commentary and more recent Hasidic writings.” —Tablet
“Biblical verses blossom into a bouquet of provocative and enlightening insights . . . well managed by Zornberg.” —Booklist
“Zornberg’s grasp of the rabbinic interpretations of the text (as well as of Jewish philosophy generally) is masterful, and the meat of her work is in relating these interpretations to the spiritual and psychological questions, or bewilderments, evoked by the book of Numbers.” —Publishers Weekly