Adina Moshavi, «Two Types of Argumentation Involving Rhetorical Questions in Biblical Hebrew Dialogue», Vol. 90 (2009) 32-46
Rhetorical questions (henceforth RQs) often express a premise in a logical argument. Although the use of RQs in arguments has been widely noted, the modes of reasoning underlying the arguments have not received sufficient attention. The present study investigates argumentative RQs in the prose dialogue in Genesis through Kings in the light of pragmatic argumentation theory. Two logical forms, modus tollens and denying the antecedent, are identified as accounting for the majority of arguments expressed by RQs. The first type is generally intended to deductively establish its conclusion, while the second, formally invalid form is used presumptively to challenge the addressee to justify his position. There is also a presumptive variety of the modus tollens argument, which is based on a subjective premise. Both modus tollens and denying the antecedent have similar linguistic representations and can be effective means of refusing directives.
34 Adina Moshavi
courteous means of issuing a corrective or criticism (10). It can be used as a
persuasive device: the speaker attempts to convince the hearer to accept the
implied answer to the question by implying that the answer is obvious (11).
RQs express a variety of emotions, including supplication, joy, wonder,
indignation, reproach, irony and sarcasm, among others (12). On the literary
level, the RQ plays a structuring role in poetic texts, both opening and
closing sections (13).
Several scholars have discussed the use of RQs to express the premise
upon which a conclusion is based (henceforth â€œargumentative RQsâ€). The
RQ is said to establish a consensus, or common ground between speaker
and addressee, which is then used to advance the argument (14). Two
characteristic linguistic structures associated with argumentative RQs have
been studied. In one structure a RQ is followed by a yk or rÃ§a clause (15).
Van Selms terms this a â€œmotivated interrogative sentenceâ€ (16). Coats
analyzes a subtype of this structure which contains a RQ of the form X ym/hm
â€œwho/what is Xâ€, e.g., Exod 3,11 h[rp la Ëšla yk ykna ym â€œWho am I that I
should go to Pharaoh?â€ According to Coats this structure represents a
stereotyped insult/self-abasement formula (17). Coats states that the RQ
serves as the basis for the conclusion, which is the negation of the
proposition expressed by the yk clause, i.e., â€œI should not go to Pharaoh.â€
Steiner notes that in addition to its use in deprecatory questions, the ...yk...hm
formula is often used â€œto ask â€” indignantly and sometimes rhetorically â€”
(10) On the use of RQs to emphasize a statement, see, e.g., CRENSHAW, â€œImpossible
Questionsâ€, 23; JOHNSON, â€œRhetorical Questionâ€, 87; RENSBERG, â€œWise Menâ€, 245. On
their use as a politeness device, see, e.g., R.T. HYMAN, â€œQuestions and the Book of
Ruthâ€, Hebrew Studies 24 (1983) 17-25. Scholars have noticed the same duality in the
function of RQs in English; Ilie writes that RQs â€œcan act as amplifiers or as mitigatorsâ€
(ILIE, What Else Can I Tell You, 128, emphasis in the original).
(11) See, e.g., DE REGT, â€œDiscourse Implicationsâ€, 52.
(12) The emotions expressed by RQs are examined in T.E. PRATT, â€œThe Meaning of
the Interrogative in the Old Testamentâ€ (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University 1972) 120-151.
(13) See, e.g., JOHNSON, â€œRhetorical Questionâ€, 106; DE REGT, â€œDiscourse
Implicationsâ€, 64-73; YELLIN, â€œSelected Writingsâ€ (Jerusalem 1936-1939) II, 3-4 (Hebr).
(14) The argumentative use of RQs in English is discussed in ILIE, What Else Can I
Tell You, chapters 6 and 7. According to Ilie RQs can express either a premise or the
conclusion of an argument. Ilie mentions modus ponens (affirming the antecedent) and
modus tollens as two types of logical arguments expressed by RQs. On argumentative
RQs in the Bible, see, e.g., W. BRUEGGEMANN, â€œJeremiahâ€™s Use of Rhetorical Questionsâ€,
JBL 92 (1973) 358-374; CRENSHAW, â€œImpossible Questionsâ€, 23-28; HOBBS, â€œJeremiahâ€,
25; HYMAN, â€œQuestionsâ€, 20-21; JOHNSON, â€œRhetorical Questionâ€, 99.
(15) The yk/rÃ§a clause in this formula is termed a â€œconsequentialâ€ clause (A.B.
DAVIDSON, Hebrew Syntax [3d ed.; Edinburgh 1901] Â§150) or a â€œconsecutiveâ€ clause
(GKC Â§166). Steiner notes that consequential yk occurs in genuine as well as rhetorical
questions and can even occur in declarative sentences, e.g., Gen 40,15 (R.C. STEINER,
â€œOn the Original Structure and Meaning of Mah Nishtannah and the History of its
Reinterpretationâ€, Jewish Studies. An Internet Journal 7  16-17).
(16) A. VAN SELMS, â€œMotivated Interrogative Sentences in Biblical Hebrewâ€, Semitics
2 (1971-72) 143-149; A. VAN SELMS, â€œMotivated Interrogative Sentences in the Book of
Jobâ€, Semitics 6 (1978) 28-35.
(17) On the uses of this formula and its parallels in the Amarna letters and Lachish
letters see G.W. COATS, Jr., â€œSelf-abasement and Insult Formulasâ€, JBL 89 (1970) 14-26;
see also O. SCHWARZWALD, â€œLinguistic Phenomena and their Reflection in the Syntax of
Interrogative Pronoun ym in Biblical Hebrewâ€, Beit Mikra 24 (1978) 86 (Hebr.)