The Ancient Roots of Liberty

As the United States commemorates its national independence, the eyes of America will be drawn back to Philadelphia, to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.

According to tradition, after the declaration was publically announced in Philadelphia on July 8, the Liberty Bell rang at Independence Hall, along with other bells throughout the city. Its iconic crack emerged in the 19th century and led to the bell's retirement from use. The bell was then preserved and put on display in Independence Hall in the 1850s as a symbol of liberty. Today, it rests in its own pavilion across from Independence Hall and receives more than a million visitors annually.

While the bell has become a symbol of liberty, many often forget that the bell's name was inspired by a quote inscribed on it. The words, drawn from the biblical book of Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 10, state, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

In its context in Leviticus, this verse details a particular vision of liberty. Leviticus 25 legislates a number of ancient Israelite economic practices. The chapter mandates that Israelites should let their land lie fallow every seven years, resulting in a sabbatical year. At the end of seven of those seven-year cycles, on the fiftieth year, land is to be returned to its original, ancestral owners. This fiftieth year is known as the jubilee year, a name that comes from the Hebrew term for the year (Yovel). The jubilee proclamation of liberty is made at the end of the fall New Year's festival, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This proclamation of liberty is accompanied by the sounding of trumpets throughout the land.

The Israelite practice of jubilee, as described in Leviticus is not unique in the ancient Near East. In fact a word related to the Hebrew word for liberty (deror) in this passage appears in similar decrees throughout the ancient Near East dating back before Leviticus to the second millennium BCE. Those decrees, which were written in the ancient Mesopotamian Akkadian language, employ the term dararum or andararum, a cognate of the Hebrew term. The Hebrew and Akkadian terms share a root, which means "to flow uninhibited," from which the metaphorical meaning, "liberty," is derived. In those decrees, dararum often appears alongside another term, misharum, which means "justice" or "equity."

One extensive example of these decrees is the edict of the Babylonian king Ammisaduqa (1646-1626 BCE), issued at the start of his reign. The edict begins with a general statement declaring "justice for the land." The edict then goes on to announce release of debts and freedom for slaves. Ammisaduqa's declaration, however, is not a universal liberty. Only male freeborn citizens and indentured servants received the benefits of freedom from slavery and forgiveness of their debts. Several classes of slaves were unaffected by the decree. This edict is like a lot of other decrees from ancient Mesopotamian society whose scope is also limited to one particular social group or class within that group.

In contrast, the declaration of liberty in Leviticus 25 is much more expansive. As the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell reminds us, that liberty is universally for all the inhabitants of the land of Israel. Everyone benefits from release from slavery, forgiveness of debts, and the return of property leased during the intervening fifty years due to the economic adversity that faced its owners.

There is, however, little to no evidence that this practice of liberty was ever observed in ancient Israel and that it was anything more than a utopian vision. Nevertheless, it came to be a powerful ideal of liberty and freedom in Western thought. For instance the current pope, Francis II, proclaimed a year of jubilee for the remission of sins in the Roman Catholic Church on December 8, 2015.

The inscription on the Liberty Bell reminds us that the tradition of liberty of which the bell is a part also has powerful economic and social dimensions. In the eighteenth century, the quote on the Liberty Bell and its expansive message of liberty enabled the bell to become a powerful symbol of the United States' freedom from Great Britain. In the nineteenth century, those seeking the abolition of slavery in the United States also appealed to its promise of freedom from slavery for the United States and "all the inhabitants thereof." In the early twentieth century, the movement for voting rights for women in the United States again looked to the bell as a symbol of the ideal of liberty and equality

While we enjoy the parades, fireworks, and barbeques on July 4 this year, we can also remember that our concept of liberty has an ancient history. This history reminds us that liberty today is not just freedom to enjoy life but includes more importantly forgiveness of debts and the liberation of those who are enslaved.