The issue of free will versus predestination is something that is present in quite a bit of fiction and mythology; mankind’s belief that it is in control of its choices often goes against the grain of religious belief in gods that have master plans for us all. Two of the most fascinating examples in early literature and religion are Job from the Hebrew Bible and Oedipus from Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King. Both of these characters struggle with divine misfortune that is dispensed upon them seemingly without cause, leading them to wonder as to the nature of the world and their place in it. However, both characters show their human frailty and blindness in different ways; while Job accepts the whole time that he is subject to God’s will, and merely looks for an explanation, Oedipus believes that he is in charge of his destiny the entire time, only understanding his misfortune after it is all too late.
Job’s world is one in which people automatically accept the existence of God and their roles in his divine plan; to that end, there is little semblance of free will. Job, for example, happily goes about his life understanding that, if he lives righteously, he will be rewarded and blessed. This is the central question posed by the Book of Job: would Job continue to worship if his godly blessings ran out? Satan, in posing this question to God, causes God to rob Job of his protection; this permits Satan to bestow tragedy after tragedy upon Job in order to see if his faith would wander.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Job’s quest (which sets him apart from Oedipus) is his constant questioning of the fates; much of the Book of Job consists of him questioning his servitude of God and its poor rewards. However, Job is actually given a chance to get an answer from his God, as God reaches out to him: "Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me" (Job 38:3). Job, instead of actually questioning God, pauses and says, "I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth” (Job 40:4). In this moment, Job supplicates himself before God, accepting his inability to change or understand his fate. Job actually receives proof of God’s ultimate control of the universe: "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). After that, he is actually renewed and given greater fortunes as a result, making his relationship with predestination fairly positive by the end – he does not receive the same misfortunes by the end that Oedipus does.
Oedipus, on the other hand, is much more blindsided by the concept of godly intervention and prophecy over free will than Job is. Oedipus, for the vast majority of the play, is in good fortune; he is the king of Thebes, and he is not directly suffering. However, there is a plague ravaging the city of Thebes, so the vast majority of the play sees him investigating the plague and dealing with other peoples’ misfortunes. In a way, he, like Job, is looking for an explanation from the gods; when he consults with his blind oracle Tiresias, Tiresias gives him cryptic answers as to who killed the previous king, Laius (which is said to have caused the plague because his murder had never been solved). To that end, Oedipus makes the choice to investigate Laius’ murder, which leads him to his eventual run-in with fate.
Unlike Job, in which the glory and whim of God is shown to predetermine his fate, Oedipus struggles with the idea that he is not in control of his destiny. Both Oedipus and his father are given prophecies by oracles that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother; to that end, Laius had chosen to abandon the child and hope that solved the problem. However, this attempt to tamper with fate causes the gods to adjust circumstances to fit their plan: “So then Apollo brought it not to pass / The child should be his father's murderer” (Sophocles 994). This move demonstrates that, in the world of Oedipus Rex, free will is a complete illusion, and prophecies can even become self-fulfilling.
In the case of Oedipus himself, it can be said that his own actions led him to discover that he was the one who killed his father; if he had not chosen to conduct that investigation (as Tiresias warned him not to, thus giving him a choice), he would not have received such a tragic end (Miller 229). However, as with Laius’ story, Oedipus’ choice was inevitable – Oedipus’ strong desire to solve the murder in order to help his people made his quest a double-edged sword. Either Oedipus is kind and tries to solve the plague (“I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet”) or he ignores the dying people he rules and is a bad king as a result (Oedipus the King, line 14). Because of Oedipus’ innate care as a king, this further proves that his fate was sealed without truly giving him any choice in the matter.
When comparing Oedipus to Job, it is clear that Oedipus is treated much more harshly by fate than Job. While Job’s misfortunes were a test to see whether or not he would still serve God if he did not receive His protection, Oedipus is simply the cruel recipient of fateful suffering. Job is never under the impression that he has free will; everything he goes through is because of God’s will. Oedipus, however, believes he is in control of his life and actions, though his prophecy finds a way to come true no matter what he does. Job’s troubles come about as a result of his existing relationship with God, and he is restored after passing his test of servitude and worship. Oedipus, meanwhile, is unaware that the prophecy directly relates to him, as dispensed by the uncaring and unrepentant gods through oracles and prophets. After he discovers that he has fulfilled the prophecy, he punishes himself by gouging out his own eyes and begging for exile from his kingdom. His fate is to suffer for the rest of his life, while Job is saved by the grace of God and restored. In this way, Job comes out ahead for having a much more intimate understanding and relationship with the divine powers that define and determine his life.
The Bible (New International Version).
Miller, Patrick Lee. “Oedipus Rex Revisited.” Modern Psychoanalysis 31(2) (2006), p. 229.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Filiquarian Publishing, 2006.