Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Resource for Preaching

by Paul E. Koptak

Paul D. Koptak, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication and Biblical Interpretation, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago.

The following article was published in The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 3 (August 1996), pp. 26-37.


A number of recent studies have been published that offer help to readers and communicators who wish to hear the stories of Genesis as they were intended to be heard and to discover their significance for life at the threshold of a new century.

Rhetoric and preaching - what do the two have to do with one another? The question is as old as the early church's concern over the use of pagan practices of oratory. Today, many are wary that the study of ancient and contemporary rhetoric will cause their preaching to become pompous, rigid and loaded with false gimmickry. Yet the study of rhetoric can be very profitable for preaching, not because it teaches a "bag of tricks," but because it raises the important issue of persuasion. Aristotle did this when he defined rhetoric as "an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." Instinctively we know that our best preaching comes about when we have discovered the ways in which the biblical writers sought to change minds, hearts, and lives and then have taken those "available means of persuasion" with us into the pulpit. This essay then, is about the use of rhetoric to study Scripture in preparation for preaching. Its goals are two. The first is to introduce rhetorical criticism of the Bible by reviewing recent publications on the subject. The second is to demonstrate one way to use rhetorical criticism for study and preaching, using as an example the story of Joseph in Potiphar's house.

I. Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: Recent Publications

Rhetorical criticism of the Bible is nothing new; it can be traced back at least as early as Augustine, but the twentieth century practice of rhetorical criticism finds its origins in James Muilenburg's work with Hebrew poetry and Amos Wilder's lectures on early Christian rhetoric. Both focused their attention on the literary qualities of the text and used analysis of the writer's styles to enhance appreciation and deepen understanding. Muilenburg's practice of close reading and compositional analysis influenced a generation of scholars. Two of those students have written methodological works.

Phyllis Trible in Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method and the Book of Jonah reviews the discipline of rhetorical criticism as practiced in the fields of speech communication and biblical studies, directing the reader to significant works that have been produced in both. She outlines Muilenburg's method and surveys the many and varied approaches of interpreters who name him as an influence. Two summaries of her own approach to rhetorical criticism are presented, one at the beginning of the book and one at the end. The first lists ten steps one can take in response to Muilenburg's dictum: "proper articulation of form yields proper articulation of meaning." The steps will be most useful to those who use Hebrew, since great attention is paid to word choices and patterns in the Hebrew text. A second summary, "guidelines for continuing," raises important questions about authorial intention, reader subjectivity, and the relationship between artistry and theology. Between the two is an extensive demonstration of the method at work with the book of Jonah.

Probably Trible's treatment of the dialogue between YHWH and Jonah best highlights the advantages and limitations of her approach. The discovery of a chiastic structure (in which the structure of the first half of the discourse is mirrored by the second) is used to explicate the theology of the book. Observing that YHWH's compassionate words for Nineveh have no parallel in the dialogue (as every other sentence does), she concludes that YHWH's pity for the city is to be compared to Jonah's pity for the plant. The responses are reciprocal: "The two passages counter each other as angry Jonah berates YHWH and merciful YHWH seeks to persuade Jonah. Both passages surprise the reader; the rhetoric of gap filling discloses the unexpected in Jonah."

Trible's careful attention to the repetition of the word "pity" has produced this reading, and certainly the many pages of verbal and structural analysis show this to be her strength. However, the book lacks a broad concern for the nature and power of rhetoric as a social phenomenon. By omitting this, I believe that Trible does not offer as much help in understanding the importance of Scripture for personal and societal transformation. Her book does provide a wide-ranging introduction to the study of rhetoric and a clear and useable method for textual analysis.

For Dale Patrick, another of Muilenburg's students, and Allen Scult, a rhetorician, the question of audience becomes more central. They believe that the call for rhetorical criticism by Muilenburg and followers intended to "encounter texts in their concrete particularity," yet the method's emphasis on stylistics kept their work from becoming a true rhetorical criticism. In Rhetoric and Biblical Interpretation they recommend that the definition of rhetoric be broadened to its fullest range in the classical tradition, namely as "the means by which a text establishes and manages it relationship to its audience in order to achieve a particular effect." They also claim that the rhetorical perspective provides a way to "balance and integrate" the competing concerns of critical analysis and persuasive religious reading.

In their view, the narrative of the Hebrew Bible does possess an innate rhetorical component that is distinct from the political and somewhat abstract formulations of Greek rhetoric. The biblical writers used narrative to report the acts of God in "imitation of the divine rhetorical impulse." In other words, God spoke through his mighty acts to call humankind to faith and conformity to his will. The narratives of the Bible report those acts for the same purpose and even prescribe ritual events for the telling and retelling of the sacred stories. The writers contend, against that view of Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative, that the narratives of the Hebrew Bible were not meant to be read as fiction that imagines what could happen to the individual reader, but as real events reported to a collected audience. The result of such address is the creation of a community with a common identity. Patrick and Scult do not ignore the matter of close and careful examination of the text. They point out matters of style and structure, and they ask about the persuasive intentions that motivated those choices. For this reason I am grateful for their extended discussion on aims, purposes, and method. Chapters on Job and the creation narratives round out this fine work.

Two other books deal with rhetorical criticism of both the Old and New Testaments. Duane Watson and Alan Hauser have compiled a bibliography that stands as both an excellent reference work and a solid introduction. The Old and New Testament sections each include an essay on history and method, noting the differences in practice. Hauser's Old Testament essay defines rhetorical criticism as a form of literary criticism that highlights the artistry in the text in order to discuss its message and its impact on audiences. It makes comparisons with the content, literary style and structure of other ancient Near Eastern texts. The bibliographies therefore list works of both literary criticism and rhetorical criticism.

The New Testament essay by Watson speaks with contagious enthusiasm. A brief historical sketch notes the rhetorical exegeses of Augustine, Melanchton and Calvin, and even Bultmann's doctoral dissertation. Yet New Testament studies became increasingly isolated in the nineteenth century as the study of rhetoric was given a back seat in school curriculums and limited to the study of style and ornamentation (Watson names Nils Lund's Chiasmus in the New Testament as a notable exception). Revival came with the work of Amos Wilder and others like Hans Dieter Betz, whose commentary on Galatians sought to demonstrate the influence of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria and other rhetorical handbooks.

Here is the major difference in method. Rhetorical criticism of the Old Testament makes comparisons with writings of the time, but New Testament critics can refer to speeches, letters and the instructional manuals that document the rhetorical cultures of Greece and Rome. For example, criticism of the gospels has been enhanced through study of the chreia, a short and pithy saying recorded and attributed to a famous character because it was regarded as useful for living. Watson also explains the debate over the influence of rhetorical training on Paul, arguing that his letters must be understood in light of their persuasive purposes. Yet he admits that the use of classical rhetoric has its limitations and problems, especially in establishing the conscious use of standards for oratory in the writing of narratives and letters. Modern theories of rhetoric have also been used to place new emphasis on argumentation, since much classical criticism has been overly concerned with arrangement and style.

The bibliographies are nicely organized into sections for each biblical book under study. A few other sections treat rhetorical criticism in general; one directs the user to foundational works in the field, while others introduce terms and concepts particular to Greco-Roman rhetoric, the Jewish rhetorical heritage, and contemporary approaches. This is certainly the best one-volume survey of the field available.

The Bible as Rhetoric: Studies in Biblical Persuasion and Credibility is a collection of essays that explore "the ways in which the persuasive (and related literary) procedures of the biblical writers cut across or reinforce their concern with truth." Contributors come from the fields of philosophy, religion, biblical studies, English literature and, in the case of one professor, classical rhetoric. John Barton shows how the prophets used persuasive techniques that are found in ancient Near Eastern literature. David Clines deconstructs Job. The New Testament essays are mostly related in some way to the truth claims of the Gospels and their authoritative claims on readers.

It is profitable to observe the uses of rhetoric made by scholars from the different fields, although each does speak in a tongue perhaps best understood by members of the same scholarly community. The positions alternate between skepticism and affirmation, questioning and doubt, and this is how it should be, given the nature of the conference at which these papers were delivered. There are some very insightful essays on biblical texts here (one on allegory stands out in my mind) but as an introduction or explication of the methods of rhetorical criticism, it will not be of as much help.

Three more works deal with the New Testament alone. George Kennedy, a renowned classical scholar, became interested in rhetorical criticism of the Bible when graduate students in Old and New Testament asked to study with him. He wrote, in New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism, "For some readers of the Bible rhetorical criticism may have an appeal lacking to other modern critical approaches, in that it comes closer to explaining what they want explained in the text: not its sources, but its power."

The book makes two important contributions. First, Kennedy outlines a method that the biblical interpreter can use to practice a form of rhetorical criticism. The interpreter identifies and examines the rhetorical unit to be studied, the rhetorical situation in which the original communication was accomplished, the rhetorical problem that was addressed, and the rhetorical strategy chosen to answer it. Second, Kennedy engages the text as a rhetorician, so his commentary is quite unlike those we often use in preaching. He not only shows how Jesus, the gospel writers, or Paul used well-known rhetorical techniques, he also helps us to listen to the urgency with which the Scriptures were written.

Kennedy urges the biblical interpreter to pay close attention to the persuasive purpose that motivates the communication. Does the text seem to be designed to strengthen the believers' faith, helping them to believe "more profoundly?" Then its elevation of faith as praiseworthy shares the purposes of epideictic, the rhetoric of praise or blame. If the passage calls its audience to choose or reject certain actions, as, for example, Paul warned the Galatian males to reject circumcision, it is an example of deliberative rhetoric. Accusations and defenses are examples of judicial rhetoric, as illustrated by Paul's defense of his apostleship in 2 Corinthians.

Preachers will most likely find that this is a helpful introduction to rhetorical criticism. It is thorough without becoming overly technical, and it keeps its main purpose of reading biblical texts at the forefront. Kennedy's method has been reproduced in a number of books and essays on rhetorical method, and so it has become something of a standard.

Wilhelm Wuellner's article, "Rhetorical Criticism," in The Postmodern Bible outlines Kennedy's method before it goes on to raise questions about the rhetoric of interpretation itself. He first applies Kennedy's method to 1 Cor 9:1-10:13 and then uses it as a base from which to launch a critical examination of that approach. Wuellner's stated goal is to examine "the need for rhetorical analysis not only of texts but also of the practices of reading texts." In his view, Kennedy's method is a very important and necessary first step, but it does not practice such self-reflective analysis nor does it appreciate how critic and text work together to create meaning.

Wuellner views the early christian rhetoric of the New Testament writings as a new form of persuasive communication that, due to the influence of Jewish rhetorical practices, went counter to the prevailing norms and regulations of Greco-Roman rhetoric. What is most important to his view is the focus on the rhetorical situation, "the particular situation in which someone attempts to persuade someone else." It is the rhetorical situation, the persuasive demands of the audience and the occasion, that stands between the historical and cultural context and the literary or poetic strategies of the text. Kennedy also recommends study of the rhetorical situation in his approach, but Wuellner brings a social critique. He believes that without an appreciation of the rhetorical situation and its contexts, the rhetoric of interpretation can silence minority viewpoints and fail to challenge the unjust use of power. These important observations that remind us that both interpretation and proclamation of the biblical texts are exercises of power in themselves that should not go unexamined.

Burton Mack is another interpreter who believes that interpreters must pay attention to the cultural context in which a rhetorical act takes place. Mack argues at length in Rhetoric and the New Testament that rhetoric is not to be understood as stylistic ornamentation, but as persuasive argumentation. His history of the loss and recovery of rhetoric in biblical interpretation highlights the publication of Perleman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation in 1969. The new rhetoric they described was actually a restatement and reappropriation of the classical principles of argumentation combined with a new sense of the rhetorical situation and its importance. This meeting of new and old guides Mack in his approach.

Mack provides a thorough survey of classical rhetoric and an extended demonstration of argument analysis, examining the structure of argument in the teachings of Jesus, the epistles of Paul, the epistle to the Hebrews, the Gospels and Acts. However, argument analysis and its long lists of labels can look like a lot of bean sorting. What new understanding is gained by listing the different steps in an argument? Mack shows how Paul was able to use the judicial argument for his apostleship in I Corinthians 9 to deliver an encomium, an epideictic speech of praise. Paul took his self-defense as an opportunity to build up his pedigree, education, virtues, manner of life, deeds, achievements and rewards in order to establish his authority. The argument begins with Paul arguing for his rights as an apostle and ends by establishing his authority to speak for God.

Mack believes that a study of the sources Paul used to construct his authority also helps the interpreter to reconstruct and describe the social situation Paul addressed, one in which standards for authority were unclear and under negotiation. In this way, rhetorical criticism fills the gap between historical and sociological approaches to biblical study. Readers will probably find his insights into the arguments for authority stimulating and challenging (he believes they are sometimes one-sided, harsh, and divisive), and they may find it difficult to use his method of argument analysis without some background in classical forms. Still, Mack's book is helpful in alerting the preacher to the structures of argument at work in many biblical texts and to the social situations that produced them.

Now that we have looked at a number of books on the subject, where are we? We began talking about the close study of word patterns and structures and ended up reflecting on the authoritative function of biblical texts. Along the way, we have observed two basic elements in these approaches to rhetorical criticism, the careful and detailed examination of the biblical text and the broader demonstration of persuasive purpose. To summarize in very broad strokes, we've seen that Trible's attention to the structures and details of the Hebrew text is complemented by Patrick and Scult's stress on the negotiated relationship between writers and readers. Likewise, Kennedy's search for the persuasive genre of a New Testament text is complemented by Mack's focus on the details of classical argumentation. Therefore, as preachers try to learn from and use the growing body of biblical scholarship on rhetorical criticism, they will find it necessary both to comb the text for signs of literary-rhetorical artistry and to step back and identify their persuasive function. While a close reading of the text will usually come first, the two procedures go hand in hand, informing one another as the study progresses.

II. Joseph in Potiphar's House (Genesis 39)

I began to prepare for a homily on this narrative by noting the repetitions of "the LORD" in the chapter. I also observed that Joseph names the name of God. His answer to Potiphar's wife, "How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" is Joseph's first speech about God in the story. This speech is quite different from the indiscreet and grandiose report of his dreams in Genesis 37. There Joseph seems unaware of God and perhaps more than a little self-centered, but here he presents himself as a mature and pious young man.

The rest of Joseph's short speech lists the honors and responsibilities Potiphar had given him, and one would expect Joseph to conclude that he could not sin against Potiphar by repaying his master's good with evil. However, Potiphar is not the only one who has been good to Joseph; the narrator reports that "His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands" (Gen 39:3). Twice the verse states that "the LORD was with him" and the same phrase is repeated in verses 2, 21 and 22. The idea is reinforced as the LORD's blessing is noted in verses 2, 5, and 23. The narrator does not mention God when Joseph and the wife are alone in the house, but the incident is framed with the narrator's reports of the LORD's presence and blessing in the houses of slavery and prison. These notices take on greater significance when the reader observes that they are not found elsewhere in the story of Joseph and his family. Nearly all other notices of God's activity are found in the speech of the characters as if to reveal their growing awareness of what the storyteller has told the reader; God is present and active, even when God remains hidden from view.

To summarize, by paying attention to the presence and absence of words about God in both Genesis 39 and the larger context of Genesis 37-50, I discerned the significance of Joseph's first words about God. They show that Joseph is aware of what everyone else (with the possible exception of Potiphar's wife) sees: God is with him and gives him success.

Moving to the second part of the rhetorical process, I tried to discern the writer's persuasive purpose and its bearing on the interpretation of the incident. The story seems to be cast in the mold of a moral tale, the kind in which the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. But that is just the opposite of what happens here; Joseph is punished with prison and nothing more is said about Potiphar's wife. Obviously, we cannot use the story by itself to teach a moral lesson, unless we want to say that Joseph did the right thing without regard for his own welfare.

Then again, the story wasn't written to be understood apart from its context. The frequent mention of the LORD's presence might also work to assure the audience that God has not abandoned Joseph and the story will not end with Joseph in prison. The incident in Potiphar's house should therefore be set in the larger context of the whole story of Genesis 37-50. At its end, Joseph's words about God make the theology of the story clear; God was at work in this family for its salvation and the salvation of many others. The brothers intended evil, but God intended good (Gen 45:7-8; 50:19-20). The story as a whole was written to persuade the reader that God is present and active, even when that activity is hard to see in the face of human choices.

Joseph's first words about God in Potiphar's house seem to be a foreshadow of the weighty words of revelation that come at the end. They point to Joseph's realization that his success is a gift. They also point to the importance of human choices, large and small. Choices are ultimately responses to God, and they have significant consequences that often are not immediately seen. Therefore Joseph's flight from Potiphar's wife is more than a moral example, it is Joseph's first acknowledgement that he sees God at work in the world of cause and effect. He sees God, needs God, and on that basis senses his responsibility to God. The story does not simply give advice on how to behave; it urges its audience to develop God-centered sensitivities and responses. It persuades the audience that life is to be lived in reverent awareness of the presence of God.


I read Genesis 39:1-6 (NRSV) that ends with the sentence, "Now Joseph was handsome and good looking."

I need to stop a minute before I tell you the rest of the story- not because it is too racy to talk about in chapel (after all it is in the Bible), but because we know it so well. Most of us can recite the story of Joseph, the boy who just said no to the advances of Potiphar's wife. Not only does he tell her no, he runs and leaves his tunic in her hands after she makes one last desperate grab for him. We know what happens next; she accuses Joseph and her angry husband throws him into prison.

We read the story as an example of virtue in action. It has been called a wisdom story that dramatizes the proverb, "keep away from the adulterous woman." It has been used to illustrate what Paul meant when he warned Timothy to "flee youthful lusts." It is a morality play for young men that we generalize to include everyone who is tempted. We know what it means for us; cross to the other side of the street to avoid temptation; run to the other side of town if you have to.

You would expect a story like this to be included in William Bennett's Book of Virtues, now in two volumes. I checked. The entire story of Joseph and his brothers is included, but this incident is left out. It only says that Potiphar's wife told lies about him and so Joseph was thrown into prison. Now I can understand the logic behind that decision; there is plenty of virtue in the rest of the story and this part will be difficult to explain to children, so it can't hurt to skip over it. But if we take out the story of Joseph in Potiphar's house we lose something more than a morality play. It is what Joseph says to Potiphar's wife that is important, perhaps even more important than what he does, because it is the reason for what he does. We need to look at why he says no and to whom he says yes.

Notice what Joseph says to the woman's pleas. "Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How could I do this great wickedness and sin against --- God?" (Gen 39:9) We're probably not surprised that Joseph speaks of God here, but perhaps we should be. Everything he has described makes it sound as though Joseph owes Potiphar for the master's confidence in him. But Joseph doesn't say, "How could I do this to Potiphar?" or even, "How could I compromise my integrity?" No, Joseph says, "How could I do this thing against God?" Joseph is aware of God. It is the first time he has spoken of God. From the moment we first saw him in his expensive coat and heard him boasting of his dreams, we have not heard him talk about God until now, and this is important. It reveals that he is aware of what the storyteller has already told us, that God blessed Joseph and caused what he did to prosper. We know it, and we read that Potiphar saw it, but until Joseph calls out the name of God we are not sure that he sees it.

But see it he does. Joseph saw what God was doing. Joseph saw that God blessed him and was at work in his life. Bottom line, it wasn't Potiphar who did all this good for him, and it wasn't Joseph's own doing either. Neither Joseph's cleverness nor his connections brought about his success; it was God who made him who he was, and it was God who put him where he was. Because God was with him Potiphar put all things into his hands. Because he was aware of God, he knew that taking Potiphar's wife would be a sin not just against Potiphar, but against God. Joseph saw God at work in his life and it made all the difference.

These are tough days for ministry, perhaps no tougher than any that have gone before, but they are still tough. We talk to our youth groups and try to tell them to do the right thing, and they look at us and say with their eyes, if not their words, "WHY?" We try to encourage adults who want to make a difference in this world but ask themselves if the good they do does any good. Somehow, telling them to just do the right thing doesn't seem to say enough.

The writer who gave Generation X its name, Douglas Coupland, has written a book called Life After God. It is a collection of stories about "the first generation raised without religion." The last of these is told in first person by a young man called Scout. Scout hates his job at a small software company he calls the Evil Empire. He has just decided to stop taking the little yellow pills that have helped him through a rough patch of depression. He says that they made him into a nicer person and a more productive worker, a well-adjusted member of society, but he threw the pills away because he wants to feel something.

Scout tells his story through the stories of the his high-school friends. He remembers the times they swam together in their warm swimming pools, floating like embryos. Their life, he says, was an earthly paradise but in exchange for God, they were left with an inability to believe in love, an irony that "scorched everything it touched."

It is fifteen years later, and the friends have had a hard time. Mark, the one with the powerful body, is dying of AIDS. Stacey, blond hip-chick with the Malibu Barbie body, is a divorced aerobics instructor and an alcoholic. Todd plants trees for a logging company and blows his income on drugs, a lifestyle Scout calls "wake and bake." Julie was the normal one, the sensible one. She got married and is raising two kids in the suburbs. Scout sometimes goes to visit her and her good-guy husband Simon. Once she said to him, "You know - I'm trying to escape from ironic hell: cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity; worry into devotion. But it's hard because I try to be sincere about life and then I turn on a TV and I see a game show host and I have to throw up my hands and give up. Too many easy pickin's!"

On an impulse Scout decides to make a pilgrimage into the forest where his dad took him camping as a boy. Not bothering to change out of the coat and tie he wore to work, he packed his boy scout tent, drove a few hours, and walked another hour into the woods. He set up the tent underneath thousand year old pines and spent the night in it, thinking. The next morning he was thirsty, so he went down to the stream for a drink. The water was cold, and he took off his shoes and socks and stepped into the stream. The icy water stung, but he didn't mind it. He stripped off the rest of his clothes and waded into a pool until the water came up to his waist, his shoulders, his neck. Finally, he buried his head under the water that had been ice the day before. He pulled up his legs into a fetal position and floated, listening to the roar of the waters that sounded like a thousand hands clapping, "the hands that heal; the hands that hold; the hands we desire because they are better than desire."

Scout said this: "Now - here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."

Two stories, and both are about seeing. Joseph saw God at work in his life, Scout saw his need for God. The story of Joseph, all the stories of the Bible are not just stories in a book of virtues, they are stories of people who see God at work in their worlds, who see that they need God desperately. Isn't that what we want for the people we serve now and those we will minister with in the years to come? Isn't that what we want for ourselves?