The Free Will Problem: Early Solutions

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

“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

On 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

The solution to the apparent contradiction confronting us is to be found in the realization that the freedom which the ancients generally ascribed to humanity was of a relative rather than of an absolute kind. The Stoic view serves as a good illustration of a relative free will theory of the causal type.

The Stoics [a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium c.300 BCE] believed unflinchingly in a universal causal chain called Heimarmene. That which is apparently uncaused is so only from the point of view of our limited range of knowledge. Man’s entire deliberative process is therefore also subject to the causal nexus.

But an important distinction is then drawn between Heimarmene, which constitutes the proximate cause of human action [i.e. the determined occasion of an activity that is out of human control], and our inner psyche, which constitutes the principal cause of such action [which is unique to each person and subject to his or her will]. This distinction emphasizes our relative autonomy. Ultimately, all the factors in the process of human deliberation are determined, but the Stoic joyfully and enthusiastically embraces his destiny, content with the capacity consciously to share in the processes that initiate action.

In short, within the framework of a theory of relative freedom (or “soft determinism,” in the phrase of William James), the concepts of determinism and predestination may freely coexist with that of voluntarism. God can be envisaged as predetermining human nature to include the power of deliberative choice, though as human nature’s sovereign author he also determines its mode of operation and consequently all that results from it.

It did not particularly bother most ancient writers, however, that God was thus ultimately responsible for human moral delinquency and the punishments that followed it. They simply accepted this hard reality as part of the divine mystery. It was only under the impact of extraordinary catastrophes that their concepts of freedom and predestination became unglued and required new and more subtle interpretations to put them together again.

The Rabbinic View

Having outlined the ancient perspective on human freedom, we may now readily ascertain the rabbinic view. Following in the footsteps of Mosaic Scripture, the rabbis wished only to emphasize human moral responsibility without compromising the all‑determining power of divine providence. To this end they taught a doctrine of freedom roughly equivalent to the relative free will theory found in ancient Greek philosophy.

They were fully alert to the ultimate divine determination of human character, and they did not attempt to diminish its essential mystery. A late midrash, for example, put the following critique into the mouth of Cain: “Master of the world, if I have killed him [Abel], it is thou who hast created in me the Evil Yetzer [drive]…It is Thou who has killed him” (Tanhuma Genesis 9b).

In a more pointed attempt to locate the source of human motivations in God, the rabbis pleaded in favor of the brothers of Joseph, “When Thou didst choose, Thou didst make them love; when Thou didst choose, Thou didst make them hate” (Genesis Rabbah 84‑18, Theodor Albeck, ed., 1022).

Elijah, too, spoke insolently toward Heaven, saying to God, “Thou hast turned their heart back again,” and God later confessed that Elijah was right (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 31b; cf. Genesis Rabbah 34.10, Theodor Albeck, ed., 320). A similar critique is voiced with almost consistent monotony by the author of [the apocalyptic work] IV Ezra: “This is my first and last word; better had it been that the earth had not produced Adam, or else, having once produced him, [for Thee] to have restrained him from sinning” (IV Ezra 7:116).

“Everything is Foreseen, Yet Humanity Has the Capacity to Choose”

Although the statement of Rabbi Hanina ben Hama, a first‑generation Palestinian amora that “everything is in the hand of Heaven except the fear of Heaven” (BT Berakhot 33b; cf. BT Niddah l6b) has sometimes been taken to imply an absolute free will doctrine, it is most unlikely that this interpretation is correct. Rabbi Hanina probably only meant to imply that whereas God’s providence in every other aspect of human life involves direct guidance and at times even intervention, this does not apply to human moral deliberations, which ultimately depend upon the spiritual endowments initially bestowed on a person by God.

Moreover, the famous paradox of Rabbi Akiva that asserts that “everything is foreseen [by God], yet man has the capacity to choose freely” (Avot 3:15)‑‑or as Josephus put it, “to act rightly or otherwise rests for the most part with man, but in each action Fate cooperates” (Wars 2, 162‑63)‑‑is undoubtedly a Jewish version of the well‑known Stoic paradox that although everything is in accordance with Heimarmene, yet human action is within our power.

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from 
Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought
, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

Biblical monotheism, which tended to subordinate the entire natural world to the sovereign power of YHWH [God], was ineluctably driven to attribute even the human psychological sphere to the all‑determining divine action.

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