The legitimacy of rhetorical analyses of the New Testament has been an area of lively debate in scholarly circles. For anyone who was not at IBR this last year, the tension in the room during the dialogue between Stan Porter and Ben Witherington III was a bit uncomfortable to say the least. The question is, “should the text of the New Testament be studied as texts that would first have been preached?”
While New Testament scholars have greater difficulty coming to a consensus on this question, those who study prophetic literature can enjoy much more common ground. For, before the prophets’ messages were recorded, they were proclaimed to Israel and Judah. And as any good preacher knows, the power of a well managed illustration can hardly be underestimated.
In a previous post, I mentioned a paper I am presenting to a Prophetic Literature seminar on the rhetorical function of the remnant motif. Though I have since shifted the emphasis of my paper to a literary approach, I remain intrigued by the rhetorical usage of the motif, especially as it appears in negative contexts against both Israel/Judah and the nations. One instance that i found particularly stimulating was in the book of Zephaniah
In chapter 1, Zephaniah details the judgment of Yahweh “against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (v. 4a). Judgment is warranted for patterns of idolatry and syncretism, which had apparently seeped even into the king’s household (v. 8). In describing the objects of Yahweh’s judgment, Zephaniah says “And I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal” (v. 4c). The phrase “remnant of Baal” has posed difficulty for many scholars, as it appears at first enigmatic.
Yet, the remnant here, paralleling the idolatrous priest in the following clause (v. 4d), evidences its intrinsically negative character. Furthermore, when set in conjunction with the other wicked groups mentioned in verses 4-6, the remnant appears to refer to more than the idols themselves, identifying, rather, a group of people.
The reason for the appropriation of “the remnant of Baal” in reference to a group, presumably of Judahites, may at first appear enigmatic, but when assessed on a rhetorical level, the motif provides insight into the situation in Judah. Marvin Sweeney notes that there exists a “tendency of biblical traditions to employ the language of the Canaanite cult to polemicize against YHWHistic practices that were not considered to be legitimate.”
Hence, what Zephaniah describes is a band of syncretistic priests acting not as the religious leaders of the holy remnant of Judah, but rather as the remnant of Baal. Such an image would certainly provoke the attention of his original audience.
In my view, Zephaniah’s ministry coincided with the Josianic reforms of. 622 BC, and was indeed influential in its success. Thus, the announcement of judgment by Zephaniah, accords with Josiah’s purging of syncretism during the early stages of restoration. The proclamation of Zephaniah during this time functioned to undergird and validate the king’s program of reform. And the remnant motif was a potent rhetorical device to motivate the people to reject lawlessness and embrace a posture of covenant fidelity. Zephaniah was indeed an able preacher.
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Zephaniah: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis; Fortress, 2003), 68.