Understanding Rhetoric and Hyberbole in the Hebrew Bible

by Jason Silverman

Biblical scholars often treat idealistic expectations – for kings or eras – as “eschatological” or “messianic” expectations. Yet this sort of analysis often elides the rhetorical nature of the source texts. Messianism and eschatology are complex and important ideas, but they need to be carefully understood within the ways in which humans communicate with each other. Only when a broader rhetorical context is understood can particular concepts such as these be analyzed effectively, and thus appreciated on their own terms – why an author or a community found them appealing at a particular moment in time. I analyze the rhetoric of Obama’s first presidential campaign as a recent comparator, using Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence Theory and recent work on hyperbole. The results of this discussion are then applied to four sample passages from the context of Hebrew Bible to argue that idealistic or “utopian” language need not necessarily imply any of the ideas associated with messianism or millenarianism. In the final analysis this will mean that scholars must be more careful in delineating the diachronic development of ideas in ancient texts. 

Obama’s campaign is a remarkable weaving of common American themes which appeal to the different American constituencies into a unified vision, the implication of which is that the result of Obama’s election will be the Promised Land. If that is not a hyperbolic vision, it is hard to know what would be. A clever aspect of it, however, is that it is more a matter of structural implication than any given statement, beyond the unspecific “journeys,” “hopes,” and “yes we cans.” It is here that the emotional and valuative nature of hyperbole is it is enough to give emotional emphasis to the vision’s import. The hyperbolization is never made so excessive as to be incredible, but the hyperbole says the vision is significant enough to merit the forming of a movement. The overall positive import then colors the otherwise rather non-specific cues “change” and “yes we can” to positive connotations. The cliché of life as journey is also given a simultaneously vague (promised land) and specific (Obama’s election) destination.

The hyperbolic nature of the rhetoric was picked up in a famous TV attack ad by McCain’s team, and it is a common angle of attack by “conservative” commentators. The advertisement mocks the idealistic language used during the campaign, and it largely consists of quotations by Obama interspersed with commentary and clips referencing Jesus and Moses – including what is perhaps the most iconic American portrayal of Moses, by Charleston Heston in The Ten Commandments. Indeed, Obama does repeatedly cite the Exodus story, but places himself in the role of Joshua rather than Moses. Nevertheless, whether or not McCain’s team intended to be humorous or earnest in their satire, it quite astutely reflects the tenor of the Obama campaign’s rhetorical vision. More importantly for the purposes of this article it shows how easily Obama’s rhetoric could be called “messianic” should one not be so close to the event and aware of all the surrounding context. In 1000 years if one had just the transcripts of the speeches and no knowledge of the campaign, what might one’s perceptions be of the expectations for Obama? If his present political opponents and some more naïve supporters might see messianic intent in his language, what would textual critics be likely to see in them when decontextualized?

It is exactly this kind of question – idealistic rhetorical texts with largely lost contexts – which confronts scholars when dealing with idealistic texts in the Hebrew Bible. The sample texts chosen here are four passages which have sometimes been called messianic by scholars and which were later interpreted messianically within Second Temple Judaism (Isa 9:1–6, Isa 11:1–16; Jer 23:1–8; Amos 9:11–15); The discussion focuses on rhetorical motives and effects. These four passages cannot be combined into a single rhetorical vision, yet, despite their likely different historical moments, all four texts share certain rhetorical features. All four discuss an improved state for Israelite/Judaean society, which in the ancient Near East inevitably includes a king. The importance of the king varies between them, however. In Isa 9 and 11 the king is an emblem of the ideal society; in Amos a king is merely one aspect of an ideal society; and in Jer 23 the new kings are symbols of the wickedness of present kings. The key royal terms of justice and righteous are symbolic cues in both Isaianic passages and in Jer 23, while the latter uses the important royal metaphor of shepherd. All use the name of David except for Isa 11 which replaces it with “shoot of Jesse.” Each passage shares two important rhetorical techniques as well: the appeal to the past as a precedent and the use of hyperbolic metaphors for a properly ordered society. In Isa 9 the precedents were the theophany in war (or holy war) and dynastic traditions. In Isa 11 and Jer 23 the precedent was the Exodus. In Amos 9 the precedent was the previous Davidic empire. The hyperbole in Isa 9 is traditional royal acclamation hyperbole – peace without end (v. 6) and justice and righteousness to the end of the age (v. 6). The hyperbole in Isa 11 is more elaborate and colorful, with eight animal images portraying the ideally peaceful conditions. Jer 23 hyperbolizes its comparison with the exile, while Amos uses excessive agricultural fecundity for similar rhetorical ends.

In all four passages, however, the rhetorical focus is on the nation of Israel and not on kingship per se. The hyperbole, however, still marks it as important (and makes it affective). Correct kingship functions as a “canary” for the health of the people as whole, and not so much as a hope in itself. This is made explicit by the naming formulas in Isa 9 and Jer 23 where the new king has theophorics which point to the activity of YHWH. It is pertinent to note that rhetorical villains are largely absent in all four passages as well (except for those directly addressed in Jer 23). The end rhetorical effect of all four is to encourage hope in the survival of the community qua Yahwistic nation within the land of Palestine.

The two corpora discussed so far are very different from each other, in content, context, media, and historical era. Nevertheless, each group shares several rhetorical strategies. Obama and the Hebrew texts appealed to past precedents (incidentally, even the same past precedent in the form of the Exodus). The appeal to the past in both cases, however, included an element of a new generation which would go beyond the achievements of the past. Obama largely harnessed the American progress narrative and the Joshua story for this end, while Isaiah and Jeremiah used the language of “shoot” and of a new member of a dynasty. Both Obama and the biblical texts used hyperbolic metaphors to add significance and emotion to their messages. The Hebrew texts did this more picturesquely than Obama did, but this is more a matter of degree than kind. Moreover, although the speeches and the “messianic” texts are supposedly leader-focused, the rhetoric of each is decidedly focused on the people-as-nation and the leader, whether presidential aspirant or dynast, as merely a symbol of the nation as it ought to be. This is the point where one can see how rhetorically artful usage of hyperbole can have community-creating effects around a desired cause. By making a leader essentially a symbol for communal hopes and dreams and making those disparate dreams explicitly converge, what could otherwise be a mundane proposition (vote for me, support the king, do not assimilate) becomes emotionally affective and memorable. Hyperbole used well can aid in the convergence of pre-existing communal fantasies and thus create rhetorically compelling narratives. Obama’s campaign is merely a recent and accomplished example of how hyberbole can accomplish these ends. Far from being unique in this respect, the comparison with the Hebrew texts highlights the commonality of the strategy within human discourse across the ages.

The above is a summary of Jason Silverman’s research article ‘Yes We Can (Hyperbolize)! Ideals, Rhetoric, and Tradition Transmission’, which was published in October 2014 in the Journal of the Bible and its Reception 1(2), 263-284.