The Liberty Bell has an inscription with a quote from Leviticus 25:10:

Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.

My question is, what does that quote mean in its original context? Clearly, although it might have been the intent of the people who made the Liberty Bell, it did not mean "Spread the philosophy of classical liberalism to everyone", because liberalism is of course a doctrine that only born in the Enlightenment. So what does liberty mean in this passage? Does it mean freeing slaves or something?

  • Keshav, I'd be very interested in the response you get by posting this question on judaism.SE. You're asking about its original context, and who better to provide that insight than the Jews? If you choose to do this, please bring the answer back here or link to it in your question. I'd love to know.
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 23:58
  • The concept of freedom, from which classical liberalism derives its doctrine exists in the ancient world e.g. Philo's 'Every good man is free', which probably means something more like: every productive person has options (because he is in demand from whomever needs what he produces).
    – Simon H
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 9:23

1 Answer 1


The Year of Jubilee

Every 50 years, the Jews were required to return any land they had bought back to its original owners, as well as set all their slaves (who wanted to be freed) free. This is what Levicitus 25:10 is talking about. Hebrew slaves were already ordered to be freed every seventh year (Ex 21:2), for slavery among Hebrew brethren was always meant to be temporary (as a means of settling debts). It was more like indentured servitude. The Jubilee emancipation is not described as being limited to just Israelites, but any and all slaves.

There are Christian groups who read the commands in the Old Testament and deduce which ones apply to us today. They might say (not being one of them, I don't know how they judge in this particular case) that we should observe the same rule if we lived in a society where slavery was permitted. Paul as much as said that slavery is to be avoided (1 Co 7:21), so it's not as though this provision in the OT is prevailing justification for allowing slavery.

I certainly don't read it as demanding action on our part to free other people's slaves. It's about setting your own slaves free.

  • "I certainly don't read it as demanding action on our part to free other people's slaves." Then why does it say "unto all the inhabitants thereof"? Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 22:27
  • So was there no justification placing the quote on the Liberty Bell, which was about classical liberalism rather than abolitionism? Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 22:28
  • 1
    It's telling the Israelites to free their own slaves. It's not telling them to go into other countries to free the slaves held there. That's what I intended. "unto all the inhabitants thereof" is referring to Israel. In the previous verse, it says, "throughout all your land." I think the scope of the command is the same here, even though it only says "throughout the land."
    – mojo
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 22:58
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    I don't think the inscription on the Liberty Bell was meant as the fulfillment of a commandment any more than the University of Texas Library inscription outside the building "and the truth shall set you free" being about anything other the value of education. I don't think it's meant as an exegesis, only the using of a familiar phrase to make a statement.
    – mojo
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 23:00

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