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.
Two Types of Argumentation Involving Rhetorical Questions 41
Premise 1: If God cannot provide food for the entire nation for a
month, then His power is limited.
Premise 2: Godâ€™s power is not limited.
Conclusion: God can provide food for the entire nation for a month.
The premise of modus tollens is commonly represented by a yes-no RQ,
as in the previous two examples (46). The rhetorical â€œIs B?â€ implies the
negative proposition â€œNot B.â€ Content RQs can also express the premise
â€œNot Bâ€ in a modus tollens argument. Content RQs imply propositions
involving the null set, which are generally equivalent to negative
propositions. An example is Jacobâ€™s retort to Laban in Gen 31,36, â€œWhat is
my crime, what is my guilt, that you should pursue me?â€ (47) The RQ
implies â€œI have committed no wrong [against you]â€, which is equivalent to
the negative proposition â€œI have not wronged you.â€ The complete argument
is as follows:
Premise 1: If you are justified in pursuing me, I must have wronged
Premise 2: I have not wronged you.
Conclusion: You should not pursue me.
The conclusion of a modus tollens arguments is true unless one of the
premises is false. The premise implied by the RQ, â€œNot Bâ€, is often
irrefutable, relating to a proposition B that is absurd or improbable, as in
Gen 18,13-14 and Num 11,23, above. Usually the addressee must admit the
validity of the first premise, â€œIf A then Bâ€, as well, and, consequently, the
truth of the conclusion, â€œNot A.â€ The argument in Gen 18,13-14, above, is
presumably compelling from Abraham (and Sarahâ€™s) perspectives: they
undoubtedly accept Godâ€™s omnipotence, and cannot challenge the premise
that Sarahâ€™s laughter is incompatible with belief in Godâ€™s omnipotence.
Sarahâ€™s only recourse is to falsely deny that she laughed at all. Her
deception is subsequently confronted by God: â€œNo, you did laughâ€ (v. 15).
In some cases the addressee does not necessarily accept the implication
of the RQ as obvious. Such an RQ may be accompanied by supplementary
evidence designed to bolster the case for the premise, as when Josephâ€™s
brothers defend themselves against Jacobâ€™s accusation that they should not
have revealed personal details to the Egyptian official (i.e., Joseph):
â€œThe man kept questioning us about ourselves and our family,
saying, â€˜Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?â€™ And
we answered him accordingly. Could we in any way know that he
would say, â€˜Bring your brother down?â€™â€ (Gen 43,7)
Although the implied premise â€œWe could not have known that he would
tell us to bring our brotherâ€ is obvious to the brothers, it is not so to Jacob;
in fact, it can be assumed from Jacobâ€™s accusation that he believes the
opposite to be the case. The brothers defend the premise by pointing out that
(46) See also, e.g., Gen 18,14.25; 30,2.15; 43,7; Lev 10,19; Num 11,23; 12,2;
16,9.13; 2 Kgs 5,7.26.
(47) See also, e.g., Gen 20,9; 31,36; Exod 6,12.30; 16,7.8; Num 16,11; Judg 6,13;
11,26; 2 Kgs 18,34; 19,13.