“Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land”
The phrase “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” is inscribed on our Liberty Bell. When the bell was cast and the phrase inscribed, the liberty it referred to was political freedom from England, the country to which we had “belonged” for so many years. Along with political liberty came economic liberty. We no longer had to pay taxes to England or trade exclusively with the “mother country.”
Originally, the phrase “proclaim liberty throughout the land” was part of the law God gave the Israelites in the wilderness. When God brought them out of Egypt they were a ragtag bunch of recently freed slaves. They had a limited history. They remembered their patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but little else. There had been no significant leader since Joseph died, and no significant event they could look back on in the recent past. There was nothing they could point to and say, “This is who we are now.”
God knew they could not function as a nation without a constitution, just as the United States would not have been able to function without a document that set down the laws for our citizens to follow. So God gave them the Torah, a set of instructions which would govern their relationship with God and their relationship with each other.
Of particular interest to God was equality of opportunity. In the same way that our Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal,” God wanted to ensure that no one would be left behind in the prosperous land where Israel would settle. For that purpose God instituted a plan for levelling out economic conditions.
God knew that there would be hardships. Crops would fail. Families would incur unexpected debts. Others would make bad decisions. Some would have to sell land, or indenture themselves to someone more prosperous while they worked their way out of debt. God would only control so much, so some provision had to be made to ensure these families would not be permanently debt-ridden or enslaved.
Every fifty years the trumpets were to blow on the tenth day of the seventh month (the Day of Atonement) and the Year of Jubilee was to be announced. There was to be liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants. Everyone was to be freed from whatever debt they had incurred, and from whatever indenture into which they had sold themselves. Every person was to return to his land and his family. Indebtedness was ended. Servanthood was ended. They were free to start over again. This was not a voluntary clearing of the slate. This was part of the covenant God made with Israel: “If you keep my commandments I will bless you.”
There is no proof the Jubilee year was ever celebrated. There was never a time when debts were forgiven and slaves were freed. The people did not trust God enough. Land remained in possession of its new owners. Servants remained indentured to their masters. Those who were wealthy remained wealthy. Those who were poor remained poor.
We need a Year of Jubilee today. Families have remained in poverty for generations, never being able to make enough to dig themselves out of the financial hole their predecessors fell into years upon years ago. While we have no official slavery or indenture in this country, we might as well have, as people remain ensnared so firmly in debt that they have no freedom to move to better jobs or better living conditions.
Can we institute a Jubilee Year such as God outlined in the Torah? Probably not. It is impossible to impose an agrarian system of reform on a technocratic society. But something must be done. God wanted Israel to avoid systemic poverty, and we must honor that desire.
Subordinating moral and ethical interests to commercial interests is displeasing to God, and we must avoid displeasing God at all costs.