I'm trying to understand how the old testament understands the nature of Human Will. I don't see any direct references to free will. By free will, I mean that individual humans are the capable of independent moral agency. It seems to be a major part of Christian theology in terms of the developed sense of judgment and heaven and hell which is not really present, as I read, in the Hebrew Bible.

I know this question may sound weird, but maybe frame it around Psalm 139, "The Inescapable God."

4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
16In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

One might also think of God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

Also, the episode with Moses and the Serpent in numbers 21 (referenced in John 3) seems to act as a kind of filter like one might prune branches on a vine. It's not so much that people freely choose anything, but that those that don't respond with obedience to the command to look upon the pole are "filtered" (killed) to winnow out the ones with the proper features in the same way one separates wheat from chaff.

I'm operating under an OT to NT theory of the individual not having free agency, but thinking that they do. As I am thinking, it is the idea that we have free will that leads to the notion of moral agency (the knowledge of Good and Bad - Think Eden).

John 1:12-13 provides the diagnosis:

12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Here, there is a statement that it is impossible to be "born again" (John 3) by your own will or the will of others. This matches most of the theology of John as I read it.

So, my understanding is:

  1. We don't have free will
  2. We think we do (sin)

Is there any direct support for humans as individual moral agents in the understanding of the authors of the Hebrew Scripture? How does one reconcile this with the various theodicies and particularly this verse from Isaiah 45:

5I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you [Cyrus the great] do not know me, 6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one apart from me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7I form light and create darkness, I make peace (shalom) and create evil (ra); I the Lord do all these things.

Question: Is there any direct discussion, in the Hebrew canon, of the free agency of the individual as moral agents? Think of this under the distinction of libertarian free will (we are independent "fountains" of cause that occur ex nihilo from us) versus consequentialism (we have no free will, but still receive consequences to filter as in evolution by natural selection).

  • In the highlighted passage, man means male, not human, and the will of man is the (male) libido; i.e. the birth in question is not of a carnal nature.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 12:01
  • Sarkos (the greek word for man) has the following in Strong’s lexicon: “In short, flesh generally relates to unaided human effort, i.e. decisions (actions) that originate from self or are empowered by self.” John says “not that.” This seems to claim that the will of the self cannot lead to life.
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 12:12
  • Well, flesh (also) means... flesh; and being born of the spirit is not the same as being born of the flesh, inasmuch as the spirit, unlike the body, is not made of flesh.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 12:33
  • You are saying that the english word you've picked to define sarkos is what that english word you picked means... flesh = flesh. I agree with you. That also has nothing to do with the greek word in question, you have also changed your translation from man/male. And flesh is genitive, meaning it is the indirect object of the direct object, will (θέλημα). The sentence is not about the flesh/male/sarkos, it is about the WILL of the sarkos (a sub-component of it).
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 13:51
  • 1
    This question is off-topic. It is trying to open a debate about a biblical topic which,on an hermeneutic site - is 'off-topic'. However I agree with your statement that there is no 'reference to free will' in the OT. Absolutely. And I agree that John makes it clear , 1:12, that being born of God is 'of God' and not 'of the will of the flesh' or 'of the will of man'. Absolutely.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 14:02

2 Answers 2


The apostle Paul addresses this issue in the book of Romans 9 concerning Jacob and Esau, he states the fact that before twins were even born or before they did anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might stand she was told the older will serve the younger(Romans 9:9-13) he adds 'it is written "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated."

As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. [Romans 9:13 KJV]

So Esau had no choice to change God's will. In my own view we do not have a 'free' will cause if we did the book of life wouldn't have been written before our creation. Jesus himself said "No one comes to the me unless the Father who sent me draws him"(John 6:44) this confirms the fact that we can't change our ways unless God himself allows us.

  • Welcome to BH. Please see the Tour and the Help (below, bottom left) as to the purpose and the functioning of the site. I have up-voted your answer (+1) in full agreement.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 14:12
  • I have made an edit to your answer in order to demonstrate how you may highlight referenced quotations. Please feel free to rollback if you wish.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 14:16
  • Thanks @LoganKapula! While this is not a strict OT quotation (Romans 9), it is first century exegesis of the OT. I have spent relatively little time in Romans. I will take another look. This seems to be consistent with the idea that "we can achieve salvation by our own actions" is false, but simultaneously a core doctrine of catholicism and modern western protestantism outside of double predestination and universalism.
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 14:32
  • @GusL. Your comments on catholicism and protestantism are completely off-topic on this site. I underline again that we examine the text hermeneutically. If you wish to involve in comparative religion I suggest you interact on the Christianity site of Stack Exchange.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 4:54
  • My point was that those doctrine don’t match an analysis of the text. I thought that was clear.
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 7:28

I'm not sure how you could read the Tanach ("Old Testament") and come away thinking that man has no free will.

First off, the whole idea of G-d commanding Israel to fulfill commandments, with promises of reward and punishment, implies free will.

It's extremely logical that if G-d says "You shall do XYZ" it assumes that a person can do it.

And when it says, "If you do XYZ then I will give blessings... and if you don't do XYZ then I will punish you," this implies that a person has the ability to choose to do XYZ or not. Otherwise, why should G-d punish people for not doing XYZ if they didn't have the free will to do so?

Thus for example [Deuteronomy 11:13-17][1]

13 וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֺתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם׃

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,

14 וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃

I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—

15 וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃

I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.

16 הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃

Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.

17 וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃

For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you.

This, and numerous other passages, clearly imply that Israel has free choice.

But besides the general concept of commandments, G-d multiple times commands people to make correct choices, to choose life and good. If G-d commands us to choose good, it obviously assumes that man can choose to do good or the opposite, i.e. free will.

Thus we find [Deuteronomy 30:15-20][2]

15 רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.

16 אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוְּךָ֮ הַיּוֹם֒ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ לָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֔יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְוֺתָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֑יו וְחָיִ֣יתָ וְרָבִ֔יתָ וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.

17 וְאִם־יִפְנֶ֥ה לְבָבְךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע וְנִדַּחְתָּ֗ וְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִ֛יתָ לֵאלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים וַעֲבַדְתָּֽם׃

But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods,

18 הִגַּ֤דְתִּי לָכֶם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם כִּ֥י אָבֹ֖ד תֹּאבֵד֑וּן לֹא־תַאֲרִיכֻ֤ן יָמִים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹבֵר֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן לָבֹ֥א שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish; you shall not long endure on the soil that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—

20 לְאַֽהֲבָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹל֖וֹ וּלְדָבְקָה־ב֑וֹ כִּ֣י ה֤וּא חַיֶּ֙יךָ֙ וְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמֶ֔יךָ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת עַל־הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁבַּ֨ע יְהוָ֧ה לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶֽם׃ (פ)

by loving the LORD your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the LORD swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.

Honestly, the concept of free will is so essential, and fundamental, to Tanach (and Judaism in general) that I don't understand how a person could try to understand Tanach without it.

Of course, free will doesn't necessarily translate to obedience. By definition, I must be able to choose evil in order to make my choice of good be valuable. And people can therefore make mistakes, and be held accountable for them.

And it's possible that under specific circumstances, G-d could say that it's worth removing a person's free will in order to accomplish a specific goal. This is a much bigger question about Jewish Philosophy which is off topic here.

But the basic concept of free will is fundamental, and essential in order to understand the basis of Tanach and Judaism. [1]: https://www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.11.13?lang=bi&aliyot=0 [2]: https://www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.31.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

  • the metaphor of a vine and a vineyard is often used. There is a trellis to guide growth (the torah), and the branches that don’t follow are cut off and discarded for the health of the vine. Vines do not have free will. It seems like such a model could explain God’s formation of the body of God’s people without any recourse to free agency.
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 20:58
  • @GusL. without a knowledge of the texts one could perhaps have such an understanding; and such a concept does exist in Judaism as well (on the macro scale). But after seeing the texts insides, especially Deut. 30:15-20, where G-d says He's giving us the choice of good or bad (and He defines good as doing His commandments etc.) and then commands us to make the right choice- how could this be reconciled by the "vine" metaphor? The gardener doesn't command the vine which way to grow? Clearly the existence of free will is taken for granted.
    – Binyomin
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 21:26
  • There is nothing free implied. The branch follows the path of the trellis and makes good fruit or it goes off on its own and is cut off and thrown into the fire. There is no free agency required. Free agency is the idea that you have merit And can save yourself through your own actions. That is what Cain thought. Abel’s name means emptiness (of merit) and that is why God’s gaze lands on Abel. Thinking we have free agency and that WE can act on our own to achieve the good is exactly the diagnosis of our sickness in eden. This is carried into Christ too in philippians 2 (kenosis)
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 22:49
  • Free will refers to actions, not consequences. I can choose to jump off a building, or not jump. I have the free will to decide what to do. I don't have the free will to decide consequences- if I jump off the building, gravity will pull me down. I can't "choose" to ignore gravity. But that has nothing to do with my freewill decision to jump or not. The commandments assume free will- I can choose to keep the sabbath (with reward) or violate it (with punishment.) I can choose what to do, and I can be held accountable for my choice. This is unlike a vine, which can't "choose" which way to grow.
    – Binyomin
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 23:16
  • Meh. This is a debate for another forum. I am happy to take it to a chat if you like. That being said, you choose what to do but you can’t choose what you want to do. Your wants compel your choices and your wants are facts about you like your height. Your wants are facts about your experience... but either way, eden says that is our nature to think we can choose the good and bad in spite of the commands. The torah’s message: obedience, not moral judgment. You and I are empty of merit. All is vanity.
    – Gus L.
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 0:03

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