The Bible says many different things about God, at many different times and by many different people. It is all too easy (wrote Ian Paul some while ago) to simply read the words on the page and then decide whether we think we believe them or not.
Think of the passage in Numbers 15:32-36, where God says concerning the man who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath, “The man must die”.
It is conceivable (just!) that a reader might argue that anyone today caughter gathering firewood on a Saturday should be stoned to death. More likely, a person might react with horror to this text: “God would never command such a thing!”
Ian Paul notes two approaches to such a text that representative two extremes, each equally problematic:
1. God can do what he likes. If he kills someone, because God is just, it must by definition have been a just act. If we dislike it, then that means that either we have not read the text properly and not understood it, or our values are out of line with the Bible and need to change.
2. This cannot be God’s will. So whoever wrote this down made a mistake. God is just and loving, and if the OT shows God acting unjustly or in an unloving way, then either we have misunderstood the text, or more likely, the biblical writer misunderstood what was happening. They might have been at an earlier stage of God’s revelation of himself, or stuck in their more primitive culture, but now we know better.
But there is a process to be followed. We need to consider:
1. The text itself—what it says, and what it means in its context. (This is usually called exegesis.)
2. The whole range of issues about the text’s interpretation, that is, how we as 21st-century readers might understand it from our very different social and historical context. (This is usually called hermeneutics.)
3. How, once we have understood the text and how we make sense of it, this text contributes to our understanding of who God is and what we might try to say about God. (This is called theology.)
4. What the implications of all this are for how we try and live our lives as disciples. (This is called ethics).
Where does scholarship come in? Ian Paul continues: