People who study rhetoric, or even English grammar, are familiar with all sorts of literary devices. One could mention irony, hyperbole, allegory, simile, and metaphor. In philosophy there are arguments ad absurdum, a pirori, a posteriori, and even ad nauseum. But there is another device, known in Hebrew as kal v’chomer (light and heavy), which in rhetoric is called an a fortiori argument. It means arguing from a strong proposition to establish a (perhaps) weaker position. “He is dead; it stands to reason, then, that he is not breathing.” This form of reasoning was used at least 21 times in scripture, including several times by Jesus and Paul. It is most often stated using the phrase, “how much more.”
There are some examples that make very good points, which might also serve as examples of this device. They come from various sources.
“While I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the LORD; and how much more after my death?” (Deut 31:27) Moses gives a classic example. For about forty years he has been putting up with the Israelite nation; in fact it was their rebellion that resulted in forty years’ wandering. He knows these people. And so he tells them what is likely to come. If they have There are some matters of universal import that can be proven by a kal v’chomer argument.been rebellious under his leadership, they are even more likely to rebel when he is no longer around.
There is an incident in 1 Samuel 14 in which Saul has commanded his army not to eat anything until they had won the battle. His son, Jonathan, did not hear the command, and ate some honey he came upon in the woods. His flagging strength was renewed. When someone told him of his father’s command, he questioned his father’s intelligence, saying:
See, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely to day of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines? (1 Sam 14:29-30)
Jonathan’s friend, David, was not immune to the kal v’chomer argument. After the battle of Gibeah, an Amalekite came to tell David that Saul was dead. To prove his point, he admitted that he had come upon Saul while he was still alive, but had killed him to make sure the Philistines would not take him alive. David had the young man executed for killing the king. A few chapters of 2 Samuel later, two of the commanders of the army of Saul’s son, Ishbosheth, kill their lord as he rested. Actually, they smote him, slew him, and beheaded him—no simple knife to the heart. They brought Ishbosheth’s head to David, thinking to be rewarded for killing his enemy. David asked them why they figured he would reward them, after what he had done to the Amalekite. He ordered them executed, saying:
When one told me, saying, Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, who thought that I would have given him a reward for his tidings: How much more, when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house upon his bed? shall I not therefore now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth? (2 Sam 4:10-11)
Much later in his life, near the end of his reign, David was fleeing Jerusalem in the face of rebellion by his own sons. As he did so, a man of Benjamin named Shimei cursed him. David’s commanders wanted to take Shimei’s head for this, but David replied that if his own son could seek his life, “how much more now may this Benjamite do it?” (2 Sam 16:11)
Solomon puts this device to good use in the proverbs. Consider these three examples.
Hell and destruction are before the LORD: how much more then the hearts of the children of men? (Prov 15:11; If God sees hell and destruction, surely he knows man’s heart.)
All the brethren of the poor do hate him: how much more do his friends go far from him? he pursueth them with words, yet they are wanting to him. (Prov 19:7; If a poor man’s own family disowns him, what will his fair-weather friends do?)
The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more, when he bringeth it with a wicked mind? (Prov 21:27; If God rejects a sacrifice just because the man who brings it is wicked, how much worse is it when the attitude matches the deeds?)
“Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?” (1 Cor 6:3) Paul is chiding the Corinthians for taking each other to court before the civil authorities. In stating that they should rather resolve their issues themselves, he compares judging temporal matters in the church to the weightier matter of judging angels. What he means by saying we shall judge angels has been open to interpretation. Be that as it may, if God gives us that responsibility, why can’t we judge simple matters between church members?
Most of these examples are from the Old Testament. In the New Testament, however, we have a couple of examples on matters of great import. That is not to say that the soldiers of Ishbosheth did not face grave danger when David used this argument. Rather, there are some matters of universal import that can be proven by a kal v’chomer argument.
God cares for people; not just “His” people, but people in general. Jesus makes this abundantly clear by two uses of this type of argument.
He first cites the goodness of parents. A parent would not substitute a similar-looking rock for a loaf of bread. If asked for a harmless fish he would not substitute a venomous snake. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Lk 11:13) Even those among the worst of human parents care for their children. They give them what they can. Even some notorious serial killers raised their own children as best they could. God, who is the ultimately good parent, gives one of the best gifts, his Holy Spirit, to those who ask. “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you all shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Jesus also points to the care God shows for the rest of creation. If man is greater than the rest of creation, as indicated in Genesis 1, and if God cares for all creation, therefore God must care greatly for man.
Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? … Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Lk 12:24, 27-28)
God, in fact, cares so much for man that he provided the best possible sacrifice for sin. People sin. That is a fact of life. And if people sin, they require forgiveness in order to get back into a right relationship with God. The writer of the letter to the Messianic Jews (Hebrews) argues that “without shedding of blood is no remission.” (Heb 9:22) This statement comes after (s)he makes a kal v’chomer argument that the intended audience of the letter, being familiar with Jewish logic, would be sure to understand.
Some people argue that the blood sacrifices of the Law of Moses were insufficient to forgive sin, and that is why Jesus had to die. This writer says that is not true. Under the Law there were certain sacrifices that were effective for cleansing certain sins. The sacrifices for sin delineated in the early chapters of Leviticus brought forgiveness for sins committed without malice, for violations of pledges, and for certain sins committed by the leaders or the people. For those who touched a dead body (thus making them unclean), being sprinkled with water in which was mixed the ashes of an unblemished heifer, killed in a ceremonial way and in a ceremonial place, was sufficient to cleanse them. These blood sacrifices were quite effective, according to the author of this letter.
Then why did Jesus have to die on the stake? If these sacrifices were effective, how would his death be If man is greater than the rest of creation, and if God cares for all creation, therefore God must care for man.any more effective? The author argues that it is not so much a matter of effectiveness as efficiency.
For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb 9:13-14)
The other sacrifices were effective to cleanse the flesh, but the blood of Jesus was even more efficient, cleansing also the conscience. Moreover, it was efficient in that, unlike the older sacrifices which had to be repeated with each sin, the sacrifice of Jesus could be offered once and be effective for all sins. “Now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb 9:26)
The American and British legal systems love a fortiori arguments. The Jews also loved such arguments, calling them by a different name. If God shows himself in all of creation, how much more does he show himself in his word. And that’s a kal v’chomer for all of us.