On Saturday night the twelfth of July 1997 one of the most prominent and productive OT scholars in South Africa died unexpectedly. Ferdinand Etienne Deist was engaged in primary research into cultural aspects of the Ancient Near East in Heidelberg, Germany, when he untimely passed away. At the time he was a guest of Prof. Manfred Weippert, sponsored by the prestigious Von Humboldt Stifftung. As he lived, so he also died, toiling away as ever. Fortunately we have the written results of this final research.
Prof. Deist was born 52 years ago and completed all his academic studies, with the highest honors, at the University of Stellenbosch. He was a brilliant and inspiring lecturer. After completing his theological studies he was appointed in the Dept. of Semitic Languages at the University of Port Elizabeth in 1970, from where he moved to the University of South Africa where he was professor in OT for 15 years. In 1992 he returned to his alma mater, Stellenbosch, where he was the head of the Dept of Ancient Near Eastern Studies until his untimely death.
Prof. Deist was a researcher of name. He published widely, and his original articles can be found in ZAW, VT, JNSL, OTE, etc. He published 9 academic books, of which a monograph on the textual criticism of the OT, Witnesses to the Old Testament, is used internationally. He was also renowned for his creative popular books on religious topics. He had a talent in communicating problematic religious themes to ordinary lay people. Consequently the 31 popular books and numerous articles he wrote played an enormous role in shaping the religious communities in South Africa in uncertain and turbulent times. Until his death he also wrote a weekly column in a prominent Afrikaans daily newspaper in the Western Cape called "Spiritual values". He was a sought-after orator. He conducted numerous guest lectures nationally and abroad. He occassionally preached and was popular at that as well.
Ferdinand Deist was an inspiring teacher. He was extremely popular with students. He acted as study leader for a host of post-graduate students; fourteen doctoral candidates passed through his hands. He had innovative ideas and was always ready to adapt to difficult circumstances. He was a well-organised person. He inter alia acted as the chairperson of the OT society in South Africa. During the last three years he was actively involved in Bible translation, establishing a center for Bible translation in the Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Stellenbosch.
A characteristic of this man is the premium he placed on excellence. He never tackled anything without being fully prepared. Small wonder that he received a number of prizes and awards. The Andrew Murray Prize for religious literature in South Africa was bestowed upon him twice. He also received the Acacia-prize for tertiary and general publications. He was a holder of the Von Humboldt grant. In addition he received a host of awards for primary research.
It is, however, not only for his academic achievements that Ferdinand Deist will be remembered, but for the way he dealt with people. He had a balanced personality, and he was a humble and modest person. His friendly and soft touch as well as his contagious sense of humor will be sorely missed by colleagues and friends. I still find it unreal to accept that my dear friend Ferdinand will not be returning to his office! Our hearts go out to Ferdinand's wife and three children.
Johann Cook University of Stellenbosch