The use of language for effective communication, especially the biblical literary techniques used to communicate God's Word. The Bible was written to convince people to respond positively to God's offer of life abundant and eternal. Studying the Bible from a rhetorical perspective helps us better to understand what the Bible actually says and to become better equipped to convince others of its validity through our own rhetoric.
Rhetorical study includes the examination of tropes (literary devices to make language more colorful) and consideration of schemes (structural devices which aid memory and persuasion). Tropes include: metaphor, simile, personification, irony, hyperbole, assonance, and paronomasia. Schemes include: acrostic, antithesis, parallelism, rhetorical question, and syllogism.
Metaphor is a word picture which forces a comparison. Jesus' statement that He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) is a metaphor because believers are not really sheep. Simile is a word picture using like or as to explain something difficult to understand (“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”
Matthew 13:31). Personification allows inanimate objects to take on human qualities (Judges 9:7-15). Irony is overturning expectations to underscore a tension which needs to be resolved in action or belief. See Irony. Hyperbole exaggerates in order to make a point. God said He would not accept Israel's offerings or hear their worship. In other words God will not acknowledge worship He is certainly aware of (Amos 5:22-23). Metonymy is when one word substitutes for another which it represents. When Zion is used in Psalms to represent the Temple, God's throne, Jerusalem and/or all of Israel, that is a metonymy.
Assonance is the use of sounds to underscore the meaning of a phrase or verse (alliteration is assonance where the initial sounds of words make the emphasis). Such artistry with sound is difficult or impossible to reproduce in translation. REB catches part of the word play in
Isaiah 7:9: “Have firm faith or you will fail to stand firm.” Repetition of sound catches the reader's attention and underlines the focus on faith. Paronomasia is a more exact assonance, a meaningful pun. In
Isaiah 5:7, God looks for righteousness (mishpat) but finds riots (mishpach) instead and for legality (tsedhaqa) but here is lamentation (tse' aqa). These techniques create interest and enhance meaning.
Other techniques involve the way sentences, phrases, and/or verses are structured. Acrostics begin each line of a chapter or poem with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Psalms 111:1,
Psalms 119:1, and others) as both a mnemonic (memory aid) and full expression of one's feeling. Antithesis is the presentation of opposites to express a truth (see
Proverbs 14:1 for extensive use of antithesis).
Parallelism is the basic building block of Hebrew poetry. One phrase is balanced by another phrase which says the same thing in slightly different words. See Poetry.
The Bible is full of rhetorical questions, those which do not need to be answered because the hearer/reader already knows the answer. In the Bible, these answers are usually negative. “Who is like unto the Lord our God?” (Psalms 113:5). No one! “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). Not at all! “Hath God cast away his people?” (Romans 11:1). Of course not!
Syllogism is the logical advance from one statement to another until a conclusion is derived from the premise. One of the brilliant syllogisms in the Bible is
1 Corinthians 15:12-28 in which Paul argued that the only logical conclusion to the fact of Christ's resurrection is the resurrection of all the dead.
Recognizing these techniques and studying Hebrew poetry will enhance one's ability to study the Bible.
Johnny L. Wilson