The Free Will Problem: Early Solutions

Biblical and rabbinic sources stress both divine determinism and human freedom.

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"There was no other way of expressing the uncanny, overpowering, 'demonic' character of the power of sin, than by seeing this too as a work of Yahweh [God], even if one executed in anger (J. Köberle)."

We thus find a series of human events explicated by Scripture through the notion of psychic invasion. God directly intervenes in Pharaoh's inner deliberations, "hardening his heart" in order to demonstrate his divine might (Exodus 10:1). God also hardens the heart of Sihon, king of the Amorites (Deuteronomy 2:30), and applies the same divine strategy to the Canaanites (Joshua 11:20).

Conversely, God does not permit Abimelech, king of Gerar, to sin with Abraham's wife Sarah (Genesis 20:6). In an encounter with Saul, David suggests that it may have been the Lord who has incited Saul against him (I Samuel 26:19), and when the Lord's anger is kindled against Israel, we are told that he incites David to number Israel and Judah (II Samuel 24:1).

Living With the Contradiction

two one way signs pointing in opposite directionsOn the other hand, the Deuteronomist emphasizes the crucial significance of human choice and its consequent culpability when it has gone astray (Deuteronomy 30:19‑20). Nonetheless, Scripture makes no attempt to harmonize the moral freedom of the individual with God's effective action in all things, but remains content to affirm both.

In light of the scriptural emphasis on divine intervention, it is not difficult to see how Jewish wisdom and apocalyptic writings came to emphasize the decisive importance of God's prior gift of wisdom for the determination of human character. What baffles the reader of this ancient literature, however, is the easy coexistence in it of two apparently contradictory strands of thought, namely, an emphasis on God's ultimate determination of all human action coupled with an equally emphatic conviction that the human will is the arbiter of its own moral destiny.

The Apocryphal writer Ben Sira thus asserts that God has predetermined human character from birth and has divided humanity into two antithetical groups, the godly and the sinners (Ecclesiasticus 1:14‑15, 33:10‑15). Yet at the same time he teaches that we are free to choose our individual life paths and must not blame God for our transgressions (Ecclesiasticus 15:11‑17).

A similar dilemma confronts us in the Qumran [Dead Sea] Scrolls. The author of the Hodayot scroll, for example, is acutely aware of God's overwhelming and all‑regulating power (1QH 15:20‑21). Yet alongside the inevitability of the divine plan with its prior determination of every human psyche for all time, we find a recurrent emphasis on human voluntaristic action (1QS 6:13; 5:1).

The Concept of Relative Freedom

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Dr. David Winston

Dr. David Winston is Professor Emeritus of Hellenistic and Judaic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.