Taking its cue from Rudolf Bultmann’s famous verdict that the Old Testament is a ‘failure’
(‘Scheitern’), the article reviews three influential negative readings of Israel’s history as told
in the Former Prophets. It is then argued that awareness of the theological problem posed by
Israel’s history enabled the redactors of both the former and the latter prophetic collections
to deal with the element of human failure in a way that facilitated Israel’s retaining of her
faith. Next, the sapiential insight in failing human discernment is drawn into the equation.
Failure of human action is here interrelated with failure to comprehend God’s order. By virtue
of its incorporation into the totality of the Tanak, this insight became a constructive part of
Israel’s faith. Therefore the concept of failure comprises more than coming to terms with
Israel’s catastrophic history. Since it is encoded in Israel’s Holy Scripture, ‘failure’ is a major
concept within the Old Testament internally and is therefore not suitable as a verdict over the
Old Testament by an external value judgement. ‘Failure’ thus becomes a key hermeneutical
category, not merely so that the Old Testament could become a ‘promise’ for the New
Testament to fulfil, but as a manifestation of limits in human religion and thought. Far from
undermining self-esteem, constructive use of the concept of her own failure sustained Israel in
her catastrophe and should be adopted by Christianity – not least in South Africa, where the
biblical message was often misappropriated to bolster apartheid.
The first A.S. Geyser
of the Department of New
Testament Studies, University
of Pretoria, Pretoria,
South Africa, presented at
17 February 2014. Prof. Dr
James Alfred Loader is an
Honorary Professor of
the Faculty of Theology,
University of Pretoria,
Pretoria, South Africa.
This article was republished
with the corrected second
affiliation of the author and a
correction to the note under
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