The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations Part 1

by Michael Hudson

This paper is based on research done as a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in Babylonian economic history, and was originally published by the Henry George School of Social Science (New York City). ©1993 Michael Hudson, Ph.D.


MAP: Ancient Near East and Mediterranean


CHART: Bronze Age Mesopotamian Debt Cancellations



The once-glowing core body of law within the Judeo-Christian Bible has become all but ignored – indeed, rejected – by the colder temper of our times. This core provided for periodic restoration of economic order by rituals of social renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of one’s access to self-support on the land. So central to Israelite moral values was this tradition that it framed the composition of both the Old and New Testaments.

Radical as the idea of cancelling debts and restoring the population’s means of subsistence seems to modern eyes, it had been a conservative tradition in Bronze Age Mesopotamia for some two millennia. What was conserved was self-sufficiency for the rural family-heads who made up the infantry as well as the productive base of Near Eastern economies. Conversely, what was radically disturbing in archaic times was the idea of unrestrained wealth-seeking. It took thousands of years for the idea of progress to become inverted, to connote freedom for the wealthy to deprive the peasantry of their lands and personal liberty.

So far has the modern idea of market efficiency and progress gone that today, although the Bible remains our civilization’s defining book, it is perceived largely as a composite of stories, myth and wisdom literature best epitomized perhaps in spirituals and hymns, not economic laws. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule have become so dissociated from the economic legislation of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy that whoever takes these laws in earnest is considered utopian and anachronistic if looking backward nostalgically, or radical if adopting there as a guide for current activism. Yet these laws formed the take-off point for Christ upon his return to Nazareth’s synagogue, and for his denunciation of the money-changers who had taken over Jerusalem’s temple. As late as medieval Spain the tradition of the Jubilee Year was kept alive by Maimonides and Ibn Adret. To dismiss these laws is thus to remove much of the Bible from the context of its times, above all from its Bronze Age Near Eastern matrix.

This paper accordingly traces the evolution of the Biblical debt and property laws as recorded in clay records that only recently have been deciphered and placed in their historic context. These laws which periodically cancelled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for many centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc. Already by the first century of our era no less a theologian than Rabbi Hillel developed the prosbul, by which borrowers signed away their rights under the Biblical laws. Hillel explained that credit would dry up without such a clause.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations extending from 2400 to 1600 BC throw a radically new light on these laws. Like their Biblical analogues, Mesopotamian royal edicts cancelled debts, freed debt-servants and restored land to cultivators who had lost it under economic duress. There can be no doubt that these edicts were implemented, for during the Babylonian period they grew into quite elaborate promulgations, capped by Ammisaduqa’s Edict of 1646. Now that these edicts have been translated and their consequences understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or otherworldly ideals; they take their place in a two-thousand year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal.

There is no record of just how or when Babylonian legal traditions were transmitted to Israel. No doubt there were numerous periods of influence, headed by a Bronze Age inspiration early in the second millennium. One suspects that during the Babylonian captivity (586-539 BC) the Jews rediscovered much of this Bronze Age heritage, continuing a reaction against the economically polarizing impact of usury and landlordism that had gathered momentum under Josiah with the rediscovery of the Deuteronomy scroll by priests renovating the Jerusalem temple in 610.

In a sense it is almost immaterial whether the Biblical debt and land-tenure laws were introduced by Canaanite rulers celebrating New Year Clean Slates, brought by the hapiru or transmitted during the wars with Assyria and Babylonia. What is important is that the Bronze Age precedents provide a living historical context for these laws. The central role played by Mesopotamian Clean Slates – so important that they became synonymous with “royal edict” (simdat)indicates how equally important they were to the Pentateuch. Modern readers of the Bible may skim over these laws quickly as if they were the fine print, so to speak, but to the Biblical compilers they formed the very core of righteous lawgiving.

The Mosaic tradition provided a dramatic wrapping to present these laws as being prescribed by the Lord as part of a sacred compact, to be preserved by the Israelites in memory of the fact that they had once been enslaved and must never again permit economic oppression to develop. The Israelites are portrayed as having made a covenant to protect the economically weak by holding the land as the Lord’s gift to support a free rural population. “Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me and you are only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all your landed property,” and restore it to its customary cultivators every fifty years (Lev. 25:23-28). Israelite bondservants likewise were to go free periodically in the Jubilee Year, for they belonged ultimately to the Lord, not to any person (Lev. 25:54).

Until fairly recently most Biblical historians doubted that these policies really were applied in practice. Advocacy of such laws seemed to be just one more way in which the Israelites emphasized their differences from surrounding societies and gods. However, during the past half-century similar economic reorderings have been found to have been traditional in Sumer, Babylonia and their commercial periphery from about 2400 to 1600 BC. It has become clear that the freedom advocated by the Covenant Code of Exodus, the septennial year of release in Deuteronomy and the Jubilee Year of Leviticus’s Holiness Code were not just abstract literary ideas, but concrete legal practices freeing rural populations from debt servitude and the land from appropriation by absentee foreclosers. What made the revival of these releases revolutionary in Israel was their removal from the hands of rulers to become a sacred popular commandment.

The Bible is a unique composite embedding ritual traditions and laws of social behavior in a dramatic context of stories and legends intended to appeal to the widest possible audience. This popularization was greatly aided by the spread of alphabetic writing, which made documents accessible to the population at large, in contrast to the cumbersome syllabic cuneiform prevalent prior to the first millennium BC. But the greatest innovation was to democratize liturgical texts that earlier Near Eastern societies had restricted to temple priesthoods. Deut. 31:10 directs that the laws be read aloud publicly every seven years, in the year of cancelling debts (the shemitta), so that all the population would know they were to be freed from bondage.

Bronze Age Mesopotamian Debt Cancellations

(All dates are BC)

Sumer (city-state of Lagash)

2400: Enmetena proclaims amargi upon winning regionwide suzerainty.

2350: by Uruinimgina, as part of his “reforms” upon becoming war-leader.

2130: by Gudea, upon rebuilding Lagash’s city-temple.


c.2100: The Third Dynasty’s founder, Ur-Nammu, proclaims nig.šiša (as part of his legal compilation?).

c. 2090: by his son, Shulgi.


c. 1900: Ilushuma and Erishum proclaim andurarum , accompanied also in the 19th century BC by cancellations in its Cappadocian trade colony, Karum Kanesh.

The Isin and Larsa dynasties

1974: Iddin-Dagan, third ruler of the Isin dynasty, proclaims

nig-šiša, probably upon taking the throne.

1953: By Ishme-Dagan, fourth ruler, probably upon taking

the throne.

1934: by Lipit-Ishtar, fifth ruler.

1923: by UR-Ninurta.

1800: Rim-Sim of Larsa frees his realms’s debt-servants by

“purifying their foreheads.”


1880: Sumulael, second ruler of the Babylonian dynasty,

proclaims misharum.

1812: by Sin-Muballit.

1803: again by Sin-Muballit.

1797: also by Sin-Muballit.

1792: by his son, Hammurapi, upon taking the Babylonian


1780: again by Hammurapi, after winning local victories.

1771: again by Hammurapi, after winning another military


1762: by Hammurapi on the thirtieth “Jubilee” anniversary of

his rule, after defeating Rim-Sin.

1749: by Hammurapi’s son Samsuiluna, upon taking over the

throne from his ill father.

1741: again by Samsuiluna.

1711: by his son, Abi-Eshuh, upon taking the throne.

1683: by his son, Ammiditana, upon taking the throne.

1662: again by Ammiditana.

1647: again by Ammiditana.

1646: by his son, Ammisaduqa, upon taking the throne.

1636: again by Ammisaduqa (the longest misharum act on



1500-1400: Various rulers proclaimed shudutu debt


NOTE: Chronology of the dynastic rulers from J. A. Brinkman in Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1977), and of the early Lagash rulers from Joan Oates, Babylon (1979). Chronology of Babylonian debt cancellations from F. R Kraus, Königliche Verfügungen in alt-babylonischerZeit(1984), and Otto Edzard, Die `ZweiteZwischenzeit”Babyloniens (1957). See Bibliography.

The core of Leviticus is the P (“priestly”) document, to which is appended the Holiness Code comprising Chapters 17 through 26. Biblical scholars call this the H (“Holiness”) document. Its laws, designed to preserve economic justice and supportive rituals of purity, were incorporated into Mosaic Law by being embedded in the Sinai story. (The Torah was long known as the Five Books of Moses.) Divine sanction for the Levitical and Deuteronomic laws is provided by the recurrent phrase, “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” to be free and economically self-supporting.

The Holiness Code combines some of the Torah’s most ancient and latest parts. It is archaic in preserving many practices whose roots have been traced back to Bronze Age Mesopotamia, including the Jubilee Year’s derorproclamation. It is late in its unprecedented innovation of not merely listing the sacred laws (as in the early P-source of the first 16 chapters of Leviticus), but explaining them. “In addition to stating the reasons for individual provisions, these chapters constantly refer to their overall purpose to maintain the holiness of the Israelite people. And holiness is understood not only in terms of ceremonial purity but especially in terms of personal and social righteousness” (Bamberger 1979:xviii-xix).

The Levitical exhortations, above all those dealing with debt cancellation, use phrases reminiscent of the social prophet Ezekiel, active early in the sixth century on the eve of Judah’s defeat at the hands of Babylonia. This seems to reflect the fact that in the sixth and fifth centuries the archaic laws were woven into their final form. The Jewish religion’s moral values were grounded not just in the priesthood, much less the palace, but in the people as a whole, by sacred covenant into which all members entered.

The new cuneiform discoveries enable us to see how, arising out of a broad Near Eastern matrix, the Biblical laws elevated to the theological plane a by-then revolutionary protest against the arrogance of wealth that had developed in the 400-year Dark Age free-for-all following the collapse of Bronze Age societies around 1200 BC. Matters came to a head during the two centuries 800 to 600 BC when the major social prophets flourished, in a line extending from Isaiah to Jeremiah. During the Babylonian “captivity” (586-516) and the return of the Jews to their native land behind Nehemiah and Ezra after 444 BC, the authors of a revived Judaism wove into the Old Testament’s first five books (the Torah or Pentateuch) laws which protected the rural population from large creditors seeking to aggrandize themselves as absentee landlords. The Jews were bound by a sacred pact to proclaim the regular and universal economic renewal which worldly rulers and their priesthoods no longer could be depended upon to sponsor.

Bronze Age rulers had pledged themselves to serve their local sun-gods by overseeing the rhythms of nature and society, periodically “proclaiming economic order and equity.” But most such rulers were unseated by classical aristocracies which used religion and its priesthoods for increasingly narrow ends. To defend popular welfare against the incursions of these aristocracies, the authors of Judaism formulated the idea of a national covenant, placing moral order in the hands of their congregations at large. This populism was the counterpart to the civil law of Athenian democracy.

Jewish populism inverted the classical hierarchies of worldly power. Although the aristocratic Pharisee element within the temples asserted its own interests throughout the Hellenistic and Roman eras, Christ sought to restore the archaic ethic by overturning the banking tables in Jerusalem’s temple and preaching anew the promise of Jeremiah to proclaim equity and liberty (deror) throughout the land. Indeed, it was specifically on this principle of restoring freedom to debt-slaves and unburdening the land that Christianity elaborated its ideas of redemption. In addition to redeeming souls, early Christians redeemed their co-religionists from worldly bondage. When Handel staged the first performance of his Messiah in Dublin in 1742, it was by no coincidence that the proceeds were used to free debtors from prison. For thousands of years, redeeming men and land from debt was the primary and most concrete form of redemption.

How the Axial Age took the Bronze Age proclamations of order out of the hands of kings

As creditor claims and private property spread outside of the public temples and palaces, the policy of regularly restoring economic freedom gave way to private accumulation of wealth at odds with overall social balance. Rather than being welcomed as ushering in an epoch of economic freedom, this privatization of hitherto communal land and public industry meant a loss of freedom for much of the population.

The Old Testament was put into its final form in the sixth and fifth centuries BC – the Axial Age of civilization – largely as a reaction against the economic individualism and wealth-seeking erupting from classical Greece to India. Most Mediterranean lands no longer had kings to restore order and freedom by cancelling the personal debts, freeing debt-servants and returning to cultivators the lands which they had forfeited to foreclosing creditors or sold under duress. Accordingly, the cosmology of rulers governing on behalf of their local sun-gods of justice, proclaiming social order and economic equity upon taking the throne and when they celebrated their thirtieth-year “Jubilee” anniversary, was transplanted into a new context of hereditary aristocracies and absentee ownership of the land. Where kings were not overthrown by aristocracies, as they were in most of classical Greece and Rome, they acted as representatives for the governing senatorial families (as in Sparta), or became outright despots, as did Omri’s son Ahab against whom Judah rebelled. The result was that interest-bearing debt spread without the countervailing royal restorations of order that had been traditional in the southern Mesopotamian core.

Social-justice proclamations were weakest in regions such as the Mediterranean lands where wealth and economic power were held by individual households rather than by the temples and palaces as was the case in Sumer. Yet it was in Sumer that civilization’s first documented interest-bearing debt, profit-seeking bulk trade and other forms of enterprise were innovated in the third millennium. It was here too that agrarian usury and the foreclosure of hitherto communal land rights by absentee creditors reduced much of the population to debt bondage.

Bronze Age planners opposed these tendencies. Mesopotamian rulers patterned their social structures to reflect the rhythms of nature, and to restore economic balance when it was disturbed by military, financial or environmental pressures. To be sure, until the Amarna Age c. 1400 BC, rulers and their governments were not changed as a result of rival social policies. They were unseated, and wars were fought, simply as a result of ambitious personalities and personal rivalries and coalitions.

As creditor claims and private property spread outside of the public temples and palaces, the policy of regularly restoring economic freedom gave way to private accumulation of wealth at odds with over all social balance. Rather than being welcomed as ushering in an epoch of economic freedom, this privatization of hitherto communal land and public industry meant a loss of freedom for much of the population. It threw the archaic economic balance into disorder, for it meant a polarization of landholding patterns, a loss of fiscal revenues and a loss of the traditional obligation that wealth be used to serve the common weal. Societies became exclusive rather than inclusive. Large numbers of hapiru refugees came into being from Mesopotamia to the Levant, and populations began to defect to attackers promising to free them from debt and redistribute the lands that had become monopolized by the hereditarily well-placed.

By the middle of the first millennium, social protest against the privatization of land – and the concomitant debt-servitude and loss of the land for much of the population – was catalyzed by a religious break. From about 800 to 600 BC, Israel’s social prophets drew on a powerful apocalyptic imagery to advocate economic renewal and equity, not as part of the traditional Near Eastern New Year reordering (replete with fertility rites and ritual copulation or “sacred marriage” between the ruler and priestess), nor as a matter for civil philosophical debate, but as sacred commandment. This religious wrapping for a doctrine of social equity transformed the Near Eastern legacy that had shaped early Canaan and Israel. It signalled a cultural revolution, if not an overtly social one.

The importance of Biblical debt and land-tenure laws

The first five books of the Old Testament were given their final form late in the fifth century, contemporary with thehigh tide of Greek democracy in Athens. Only in the modern era have these stories been decoupled from the laws concerning debt, land tenure and freedom from debt bondage that they originally were designed to wrap, and their social kernel thrown away.

To the later prophets and Biblical compilers, the most important laws were the sabbath year (shemitta) of Deuteronomy freeing debt-servants and the Jubilee Year cancelling debts and redistributing the land to its traditional user-holders every fifty years. Yet today, although many Christians, Jews and Moslems look to the Old Testament for guidance on what is morally right, these economic sanctions have been all but ignored as representing utopian sentiments. As recently as a generation ago there was widespread doubt that restorations of economic order actually were practiced. Even scholars who viewed the Bible as a guide for worldly policy had little basis for finding concrete applications of these laws. The prophets denounced social injustice but made no reference to the Jubilee Year or similar economic laws. The only attested debt cancellations occurred in time of war, when the aristocracy acted to save its own skin, as did Zedekiah in making a covenant to free Israelite bondsmen in the face of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Jerusalem in 587 BC (as reported in Jeremiah 34). Making such promises was as much in keeping with the spirit of the times throughout the classical world as was breaking them after the war was over (viz. the Roman secessions of the plebs and the story of Coriolanus).

Biblical scholarship has long been plagued by an absence of written records to confirm or deny how grounded the early narratives were in history. Matters are especially confusing with respect to the economic laws. What confirms their historicity is the discovery of Bronze Age Mesopotamian legal antecedents. These discoveries have wrought a revolution in Biblical studies in recent decades. Indeed, what turns out to be ironic in studying the history of Near Eastern legal practices is that precisely those parts of the Biblical narratives that hitherto have been most in doubt– the laws cancelling debts, freeing debt servants and redistributing the land to its traditional users– turn out to be the most clearly documented Bronze Age legacy. However, they are attested more in the Babylonian core than in Israel. Indeed, the Babylonian experience survives today primarily in the transmuted form that has come down to us through the Bible.

Such laws extend over two millennia, from the Early Bronze Age diffusion of Sumerian and Babylonian practices to the Babylonian “captivity” in the sixth and fifth centuries, when the transplanted Jews came into intimate contact with Babylonian scholarship. The first five books of the Old Testament were given their final form late in the fifth century, contemporary with the high tide of Greek democracy in Athens. In 444 BC, Nehemiah, a Jewish official at Persian-dominated Babylon who had risen to the position of cupbearer under Artaxerxes, was allowed to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it. He won popular support by cancelling the debts and redistributing the lands that had been forfeited to local creditors. Making a second visit to Jerusalem, he solidified the groundwork for Ezra the scribe and his associated compilers, who reworked the Holiness Code of Leviticus into the idea of nothing less than a covenant with the Lord to promote economic justice in the land.

These Biblical redactors collated the stories of Moses recoiling against Egyptian inequity and leading the Exodus, of the conquest of Canaan behind Joshua, of the transition from judges to kings, and of the latters’ backslidings which led the Lord finally to throw up his hands and let Israel and Judah be conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. The story of Israel’s divine punishment served as a parable of how it would be rewarded for following a regime of economic justice but punished for permitting the wealthy to oppress the poor. The land was to be held in trust for the common weal, not relinquished to let the economically aggressive use it as a lever to achieve patronage over domestic clients and hence secular lordship over their countrymen (as occurred most notoriously in Rome). Unlike the case with the Bronze Age rulers who would be punished by their sun-gods for failing to promote social equity, the entire Israelite nation would suffer. Only in the modern era have these stories been decoupled from the laws concerning debt, land tenure and freedom from debt bondage that they originally were designed to wrap, and their social kernel thrown away.


The archaic meaning of America’s Liberty Bell

The Mesopotamian cradle of enterprise has bequeathed a wealth of economic records and royal proclamations from about 2400 to 1600 BC undoing the economic disorder caused by interest-bearing debt mounting up beyond the ability of cultivators to pay. Cuneiformists studying these records have found the keys to many Biblical practices that have long been unexplained. The evidence shows that what undid the consequences of debt bondage and the forfeiture of lands was the periodic royal proclamation of economic “order and justice.” Records of Near Eastern lawsuits leave no doubt that these restorations of order were indeed enforced in practice, and hardly were revolutionary, being proclaimed by rulers as part of their pledge to maintain economic justice – amargi andnig.šiša in Sumerian, misharum in Babylonian, andurarum in Assyrian,shudutu in Hurrian (the language spoken in Nuzi, upstream from Babylonia), and related terms elsewhere in the Near East.

The Liberty Bell is inscribed with a quotation from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.” Over the years these words have suggested to visitors such diverse ideas as our democratic freedom to vote and the American Revolution’s slogan of no taxation without representation. But the full verse in Leviticus speaks of freeing debt bondsmen. It exhorts the Israelites to “hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a Jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his family.” (And also every woman, child and servant, it may be added.) Lands were restored to their traditional holders or cleared of all debt encumbrances. With the symbolic sounding of the ram’s horn on the Day of Atonement of this fiftieth year, the Jubilee renewed an equitable economic balance by undoing the adverse cumulative effects of indebtedness.

The Hebrew word translated as “liberty” in the Leviticus text isderor, a cognate to the word andurarum in Mesopotamia’s Semitic Akkadian language. The root meaning is “to move freely,” like running water or, in the case of human movement, like bondservants who had been enslaved for debt but were freed to rejoin their families. As early as 2400 BC the Sumerian term amargi likewise signified the return of mothers to their families (or of daughters or other relatives to their mothers) who had been pledged for debts and forfeited to creditors. An alternative interpretation is that amargi proclamations restored the economy to its basic matrix of equitable balance, its “original status” or what today would be called a paradigm (Diakonoff 1982:45 and Charpin 1987:39). What is not in doubt is that amargi and cognate Near Eastern terms for freedom and order all were based on the idea of freedom from debt and its worst consequences – debt servitude and the loss of one’s customary land-tenure rights.

Yet scholars prior to the 1970s shied away from reading these words as signifying either debt cancellations or economic order. There was a general preconception that such cancellations could not really have been proclaimed, or at least not enforced, without deranging social life. Creditor-oriented historians construed these terms in a more innocuous way, as freedom in an abstract sense or even as free trade, connoting the movement of goods free of tariffs or other state intervention. But all doubts as to the meaning have been dispelled in one archaic language after another. The type of economic freedom being referred to was the royal act of cancelling back taxes and other personal debts, restoring traditional family landholding rights and freeing citizens who had been enslaved for debt. These royal interventions ensured rather than encroached on general economic freedom.

Sumerian amargi and nig.šiša debt cancellations, 2400- 2125 BC

Today, defending the interests of widows and orphans is almost invariably associated with opposing inflation. However, the widows and orphans being protected are those fortunate enough to live on pensions or trust funds invested in bonds and other blue-chip financial securities whose income’s purchasing power would be eroded by inflation. Heiresses and their children thus have become public- relations stand-ins for banks, insurance companies and other large institutional investors. Needless to say, this was not the case in archaic times. Most widows and orphans were poor debtors, not rentier coupon-clippers .

Enmetena, a ruler of Lagash c. 2404-2375, promulgated the earliest Sumerian debt cancellation on record, c. 2400 BC, after his military victory over the neighboring city of Umma. Like many subsequent such records, this edict is inscribed on a foundation brick for a local temple which he dedicated. Some 4500 years later, archaeologists unearthed the inscription. Its first translator, Maurice Lambert (1972), rendered its wording as follows: Enmetena “instituted liberty in Lagash. He restored the child to its mother, and the mother to her child; he cancelled interest,” and probably the debts themselves. These debts would have been mainly crop-rent arrears or other payments owed to public collectors, for petty consumer lending was still relatively undeveloped. It should be noted that commercial claims were not affected by such edicts. Thus, merchant debtors were unaffected.

No doubt there were earlier amargi proclamations, as the Danish cuneiformist Niels Lemche (1979:16) believes. “Already Enmetena’s inscription seems to point to an earlier development in the application of this term since it is also used in describing cancellation of interest” or debt principal, shé.har.ra. The word’s root is shé, meaning barley, and seems originally to have referred to barley obligations. Thus, amargiproclamations cancelled personal debts and manumitted Sumerian debt-servants, but not war slaves or foreigners bought from dealers (mainly mountain girls). The Israelite practice likewise freed only Hebrew bondservants, not aliens (with the exception of the Exodus passage).

Enmetena’s dynasty gave way to a series of rulers sponsored by Lagash’s temples. The best known is Uruinimgina (2351-42 BC), whose famous “reform text” inscribed on colored clay cones displayed on the walls of a temple has come down to us in various versions. As typically was the case, he replaced his predecessor during the year, and at the first New Year festival of his rule (starting his “second” year) he cancelled the city-state’s agrarian debts and related fees owed to the palace and temples by cultivators and fishermen, shepherds and gardeners. Another type of debt consisted of the fines owed to compensate an injured party, which were being worked off by lawbreakers unable to pay. Uruinimgina’s debt cancellation thus formed part of a general amnesty. As his clay cones put matters (SARI La 9.1), he “cleared and cancelled obligations for those indentured families.” In a clay plaque version of this text (La 9.3) he says simply that “Debt servitude for theft has been abolished.” Such amnesties are found in most New Year “Clean Slate” proclamations throughout the Near East, including Egypt’s royal sed festival.

Lambert (1956:183) translates the next-to-last paragraph of Uruinimgina’s text as follows: he “cleansed the dwellings of the residents of Lagash from usury (shé.har.ra) engrossing (of grain), famine, theft, attacks and he instituted liberty ( for them.” Uruinimgina concluded his reforms with a covenant with his god Ningirsu promising that the powerful man could press no claim or legal suit against an orphan or widow. This is the first known such allusion, inaugurating a 4500-year practice of political pledges to defend the economic interests of widows and orphans, from the Near East via the Biblical lands into modern usage.

Such pledges usually have been used as a stock phrase signifying society’s obligation to protect the poor in general from the wealthy. But in antiquity it meant protecting debtors, by cancelling their debts. Today, defending the interests of widows and orphans is almost invariably associated with opposing inflation. However, the widows and orphans being protected are those fortunate enough to live on pensions or trust funds invested in bonds and other blue-chip financial securities whose income’s purchasing power would be eroded by inflation. Heiresses and their children thus have become public-relations stand-ins for banks, insurance companies and other large institutional investors. Needless to say, this was not the case in archaic times. Most widows and orphans were poor debtors, not rentiercoupon-clippers.

At the conclusion of Uruinimgina’s text he uses the same term employed a half-century earlier by Enmetena. He states that when he “received the kingship from Girsu, he instituted ama(r).gi’ (Lambert 1956:183n and SARI La 9.2). The analysis of subsequentamargi proclamations has left no doubt but that the term should not be translated vaguely as “liberty” or “freedom” in the abstract, but as an economic “Clean Slate.”

Almost from the beginning of Uruinimgina’s rule, Lagash came under attack from its rival city Umma. Its ruler Lugalanda conquered most of southern Mesopotamia, only to be conquered in turn by Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BC). Sargon’s dynasty lasted over a century, and was so oppressive that southern Mesopotamia fell into a state of general rebellion. The chronology becomes weak during 2220-2120, but Lagash gradually recovered, and its ruler Ur-Bau began to rebuild the city’s major temples and other sites around 2125. His son-in-law Gudea became one of the city’s most renowned rulers, thanks to inscriptions he has left on many statues of himself.

The longest surviving Sumerian poem (1400 lines) commemorates Gudea’s rebuilding of the temple of Gatumdug and the Clean Slate he proclaimed at the New Year festival at which the completion of the temple was celebrated. As would be the case with royal Mesopotamian legal texts for the next half-millennium, Gudea’s inscription on his Statue B has a prologue and epilogue calling down curses on anyone who would deface it, alter its judgments or substitute someone else’s name. Like Uruinimgina’s inscription, it promises to protect the orphan and widow against the rich and powerful, specifically by cancelling personal debts. “Within the boundary of Lagash no litigant put a man on oath, no collector (1u.har.ra)entered into a man’s home” (lines v:5ff. in Barton 1929). Thorkild Jacobsen’s recent translation reads simply, “he remitted debts and granted pardons.” In keeping with the ordinances of the city’s justice-goddess Nanshe and city-god Ningirsu, Gudea “gave not the waif (over to the rich man,) gave not the widow over to (the powerful) man … A grand period of equity had dawned for him” Jacobsen 1987:440 transl. Cylinder B xvii.17f and Statue B vii.29).

The New Year festival repeated civilization’s creation of order out of chaos. This was the Bronze Age cosmological antecedent of subsequent Jewish religion, whose New Year celebration was much different from the Near Eastern saturnalia-type festival. Common to both such festivals was the idea of putting the world back in order. In Bronze Age times this involved cancelling the debts which, above all other factors, disturbed traditional economic balance and self-sufficiency on the land.

The Third Dynasty of Ur replaces that of Lagash,

2112-2004 BC

An immutable aspect of the cosmic order, kittum is semantically the same as the Biblical `met (from *amint), the original force of which still survives in the common loan-word Amen.’ The independent function of a ruler, whether divine or human, is confined to misharum, that is, just and equitable implementation.” These economic order edicts restoring fixed and presumably timeless norms of justice thus were not exactly reforms, but part of a long established tradition.

The spark of revolt against the Akkadian and Gutian occupations spread from Uruk c. 2120 BC, and in the turmoil power was seized by UrNammu of Ur (2112-2095). He founded that city’s third dynasty, which governed southern Mesopotamia for a century. This period generally is interpreted as being a despotism, for Ur held a much tighter military and bureaucratic control over the land than Sargon’s Akkadians had done.

Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi ruled nearly half a century (2094-2047 BC), and commemorated Ur-Nammu’s rule with an extensive set of laws. Both father and son seem to have inaugurated their rule with a debt cancellation, as Shulgi pledged to “establish equity and justice in the land.” The “social” section of Shulgi’s text (lines 162-68) concludes with his commitment to protect the economically weak from the wealthy: “The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.” These phrases recall Uruinimgina’s text, and foreshadow the prologue to Lipit-Ishtar’s laws in Isin (discussed below), as well as those of Hammurapi. In Shulgi’s inscription the Sumerian terms nig.šiša (equity) andnig.gina (justice) were the antecedents to Babylonian misharum andkittum respectively. Ephraim Speiser (1953: 874 and 1963:537) describes how kittum represents “that which is firm, established, true” on the highest and most abstract level, while misharum means “equity, justice” in the sense of timely reforms to address specific civil disequilibrium. “The two nouns are mutually complementary…. An immutable aspect of the cosmic order, kittum is semantically the same as the Biblical `met (from *amint), the original force of which still survives in the common loan-word `Amen.’ The independent function of a ruler, whether divine or human, is confined to misharum, that is, just and equitable implementation.” These economic order edicts restoring fixed and presumably timeless norms of justice thus were not exactly reforms, but part of a long established tradition.

The Isin and Larsa periods,

2000-1800 BC

By about 2017 BC, Ur found itself under attack by Amorites (“Westerners”) from the Arab desert and from Elam to the east. In the turmoil, a local Amorite official of Ur, Ishbi-Irra, broke away from Ur to found a dynasty in the neighboring town of Isin. It had fifteen rulers during more than two centuries of rule, but only dominated the region for about a century. During a tumultuous eight decades 1974-1896 BC, five consecutive rulers left inscriptions cancelling debts with nig-šiša acts. The first to do so was Iddin-Dagan (1974-1954), as did his successor Ishme-Dagan (1953-1935). It may be significant that the latter’s debt annulment was associated with mounting a military campaign, for just before his coronation the northern town of Ashur seems to have attacked the south. Ishme-Dagan’s nig.šišaproclamation may have been aimed at protecting the agricultural base of his soldier-peasantry from the encroachments of tax officials and usurers. In any case, Isin retained its independence.

The next ruler of Isin, Lipit-Ishtar (1934-1924 BC), cancelled back taxes and other debts with a nig.šiša act three years after taking the throne. His motive apparently was to mobilize his subjects for war against the imperial designs of a ruler in neighboring Larsa. Lipit-Ishtar left a body of laws which, like those of Ur-Nammu, led off with a nig.šiša debt cancellation. The prologue states that he had been chosen by the gods Anu and Enlil to establish order and equity in the land. He “procured … the freedom(nig.šiša ) of the sons and daughters of Nippur, the sons and daughters of Ur, the sons and daughters of Isin, the sons and daughters of Sumer and Akkad upon whom … slaveship … had been imposed.”

Lipit-Ishtar was followed by an interloper, Ur-Ninurta (1923-1896 BC), who also proclaimed a nig.šiša act, as did Irra-Imitti (1868-1861), Enlil-Bani (1860-1837) and no doubt other Isin rulers. But by this time other cities were becoming dominant. The data on their proclamations are collected in Edzard 1957 and Kraus 1984.

Especially significant was the northern trading town of Ashur. It developed far-flung trade connections thanks to its favorable location on the Tigris intersecting the east-west caravan trade route along which tin was carried from the east (probably Afghanistan) to points as far west as Asia Minor. Indeed, many of the records concerning Ashur have been unearthed at one of its trade colonies, Kanesh, in central Anatolia (Cappadocia, directly north of the Phoenician coast of the Mediterranean). Commercial records show Assyrians and Anatolians falling into debt to each other at interest charges which mounted up rapidly at the commercial rate of 20% or even 30% among the Assyrians, and twice this rate (some-times even more) for native Anatolians. According to the Turkish cuneiformist Kemal Balkan (1974:30), “Often one reads in Cappadocian tablets that, because of debt, an Anatolian not only mortgaged his property, but also was compelled to pledge one of the members of his family, or even that a whole family was obliged to ‘enter the house’ of their creditor until the outstanding debt was paid.” When these consequences became widespread, local rulers might decree a general debt cancellation, called hubullum (debt) masa’um (to wash), literally “a washing away of the debt [records],” that is, a dissolving of the clay tablets on which financial obligations were inscribed. As a byproduct of these “washing” promulgations, concludes Balkan, “properties or persons taken as pledges for debts, or compulsorily sold against debt, would have been returned to their original owners or families.”

Two Assyrian rulers from 1950-1900 BC – Ilushuma and his successor Erishum – have left building inscriptions commemorating debt cancellations. Ilushuma announces that “I have established the freedom (andurar) of the Akkadians and their children. I have washed their copper and established freedom” throughout southern Mesopotamia, from the Persian Gulf up to Ashur (Kraus 1984:103). The next recorded Assyrian debt cancellation is that of Erishum, who goes out of his way to be as comprehensive as possible: “I proclaimed a remission of debts payable in silver, gold, copper, tin, barley, wool, down to chaff” This would seem to cover the spectrum of whatever creditors might cite in an attempt to claim that their specific loan was exempt from the general debt remission. (There is some debate over whether this inscription refers to a debt cancellation or merely frees trade in these commodities. But in view of its context in a temple foundation, it certainly seems to be a Clean Slate.)

The strongest town in southern Mesopotamia for a century after the power of Isin waned, c. 1900 BC, was Larsa. Like Isin, it was ruled by an Amorite dynasty. In the generation preceding Hammurapi of Babylon, the Larsa dynasty’s last ruler, Rim-Sin (1822-1763), proclaimed a Clean Slate, “purifying the foreheads” of his subjects who had been reduced to debt-servitude. Unlike the rulers of Isin and Babylon, Rim-Sin did not refer to “freedom” proclamations in any of his year-names, but Kraus (1958:201f. and 1984:31ff.) finds numerous references in Larsa legal contracts to imply that he cancelled debts on at least three occasions. For instance, in the 26th year of his rule Rim-Sin dug the “Economic Order/Freedom Canal” (idnig.šiša), apparently commemorating a nig.šiša proclamation. (On Rim-Sin’s measures, see also Charpin 1980:273f. and 133f., and W. G. Lambert 1960:54f. and 1969:151.)

Rulers of other towns also proclaimed Clean Slates. In the north western town of Der, Nidnusha appears to be the first on record to have used the term misharum to signify a debt cancellation. Rulers in upstream Hana and Eshnunna also proclaimed misharum . All these rulers seem to have recognized that if they permitted usury, debt-servitude and the sale of debt-slaves from one town to another to continue, much of the population would end up losing its lands and thus would be unable to pay duties or taxes, provide labor services or serve as a fighting force. This economic degradation is what happened in classical Greece and Rome over a thousand years later. What stopped emerging oligarchies from enriching themselves at the expense of the palace (and of social balance at large) was the fact that rulers repeatedly acted to subordinate mercantile wealth (especially usury claims) in the interest of promoting general freedom. The Middle Bronze Age was still far from being ripe for oligarchies to break free of palace control, to say nothing of unseating rulers.

In the early 1700s, Rim-Sin extended his military power throughout much of southern Mesopotamia, and entered into an alliance with Hammurapi of the upstream town of Babylon, who had taken the throne in 1794 BC. Thirty years later, in 1764, Hammurapi turned on his erstwhile ally and defeated Larsa. For the next century the history of Mesopotamia would be shaped by Hammurapi and his successors.

Debt cancellations by the rulers of Hammurapi’s dynasty,

1900-1600 BC

Misharumacts released cultivators from the threat of debt servitude resulting from financial arrears. This gave them a stake in the society whose boundaries they were fighting to extend.

Hammurapi’s laws, inscribed circa 1762, are the period’s longest and best known inscription, but they no longer are described as constituting a “code.” They were more in the character of model rulings, not binding law as our epoch understands the term. Hammurapi’s truly binding edicts were his proclamations of justice and economic order cancelling back taxes and other agrarian debts. It was these misharum edicts that maintained widespread land tenure for Babylonia’s indebted soldier-peasantry, by saving the land from passing out of the hands of the population at large to creditors on more than just a temporary basis.

The designated occasion for clearing Babylonia’s financial slate was the New Year festival, celebrated in the spring. Babylonian rulers oversaw the ritual of “breaking the tablets,” that is, the debt records, restoring economic balance as part of the calendrical renewal of society along with the rest of nature. Hammurapi and his fellow rulers signaled these proclamations by raising a torch, probably symbolizing the sun-god of justice Shamash, whose principles were supposed to guide wise and fair rulers. Persons held as debt pledges were released to rejoin their families. Other debtors were restored cultivation rights to their customary lands, free of whatever mortgage liens had accumulated.

Sumulael (1880-1845), the second ruler of Hammurapi’s dynasty, helped prepare the ground for Babylon’s expansion by proclaiming freedom from debts at the start of his rule. The word he used, misharum , stems from the Semitic sign ISHR (Hebrew iashar). Its Akkadian form esheru is related to Sumerian šiša making nig.šiša and misharum linguistically related terms to cancel debts from Ur III through Isin and Babylon.* Six consecutive rulers of Hammurapi’s dynasty cancelled debts during a 166-year period extending from his father, Sin-Muballit, in 1812 through Ammisaduqa (Hammurapi’s great-great-grandson) in 1646.

The underlying idea reflected a Bronze Age cosmology in which sun-gods of justice endorsed rulers as their earthly administrators. As noted above, Babylon’s sun-god was Shamash, from whom Hammurapi is depicted receiving his laws. Elam and other regions had similar deities, as did the neo-Babylonians a millennium later. Shamash had two children, kittu andmisharu,”right” and “justice.” (Speiser 1967:313 23 discusses their mutual relations.) As the sun-god, Shamash was patron of the New Year festival, the Bronze Age solar holiday parexcellence and the occasion on which new rulers ascended the throne, inaugurating their rule by proclaiming equity and order.

Giving Babylon’s soldier-peasantry unencumbered tenancy rights on their lands was central to the military campaigns started by Hammurapi’s ambitious father from the time he inherited the city’s throne in 1812 BC.Misharum acts released cultivators from the threat of debt-servitude resulting from financial arrears. This gave them a stake in the society whose boundaries they were fighting to extend. Sin-muballit’s inauguralmisharum act was repeated in the years 1803 and 1797, apparently to consolidate popular support.

When Hammurapi succeeded his father in 1792 BC, his inaugural political act likewise was to “proclaim freedom” with a misharum edict. As in the case of his predecessors, this was considered so important that it was memorialized in his date formula. Also as in the case of his father, Hammurapi’s debt cancellations prepared the ground for new military campaigns. He annulled debts again in 1780, 1771 and 1762 , and each such occasion seems to have accompanied a conquest. The first such proclamation occurred on the eve of his initial incursion east of the Tigris. The last one, in 1762 – on the thirtieth “Jubilee” year of his rule – followed the defeat of Rim-Sin, as noted earlier. This probably was the year in which he inscribed his famous laws, for their prologue lists his conquests and public achievements down through his 1761 victory over Rim-Sin. The words of its epilogue reflect the idea of justice characteristic of Babylonian ideology: “that the strong might not oppress the weak, that justice might be dealt the orphan and widow … to give justice to the oppressed” (xxiv:55-90).

* See Edzard 1957:68,125,165f, Bottero 1961:150 and Kraus 1958:196-208 and 224-32, as well as Finkelstein 1965 and 1961. Edzard finds Sumulael to be the first documented ruler to use the phrase “breaking the tablets” as a synonym for cancelling debts by a misharum act. The term appears in one of his date formulae, and later is used by Hammurapi’s son Samsuiluna, as well as in Eshnunna. Landsberger (1939:231) points out that when Sumulael used the phrase “breaking the tablets” he “meant not only the debt obligations, but also the sale (forced sale?) and hence turning over childrenfor adoption.”
The cosmology of Bronze Age social reorderings

and the New Year festival

Hammurapi annulled debts again in 1780, 1771 and 1762, and each such occasion seems to have accompanied a conquest.

As was the case throughout the Bronze Age Near East, social structuring reflected the rhythms of the celestial heavens, from the sun out to the outermost visible planet, Saturn. The latter (Nabu in Babylonian) was known as the “planet of justice.” The fact that its period of revolution around the sun is just under 30 years related it to the solar calendar which divided the year into standardized 30-day months. This correlation of periodicities – “a month of years” – seems to explain the timing of the Babylonian and Egyptian Jubilee years. However, all explanations are modern reconstructions, for it would have been anachronistic for Bronze Age writers to have bequeathed an explanation of why they did things the way they did.

Cuneiformists have noted the parallel between the royal economic and social acts performed at the Babylonian New Year festival and the Creation Myth, which was publically read aloud twice. The Mesopotamian idea of creation did not involve a fresh creation of matter and life, but an ordering of chaos into formal shapes. “Like Marduk in the Creation Epic,” observes Jean Bottero (1961:159), the new ruler “finds himself confronted with a kind of chaos, and he must make a cosmos,” that is, reestablish traditional “normal” order, free of the imbalances that built up during the preceding period. In this way society, through its ruler (who acted the role of the sun-god in the staged battle against the lunar chaos-dragon Tiamat) won the cosmic struggle against disorder, creating the world anew – the social as well as the physical cosmos.

The guiding spirit was one of rebirth of calendrical nature combined with social justice–the regeneration of nature and society. Moral and physical blight was purged as men and beasts, houses, barns and temples were cleansed. During the course of the festival the rich and poor acted “ideally” towards each other in an auspiciously utopian atmosphere. Charpin (1987:39) points out that the Sumerian cuneiform sign for amargi signified the cyclical trajectory of the sun as well as the return of persons or property to their original status. The inference is that just as the sun returned each New Year to its celestial point of origin, so the Mesopotamian “rulers of justice” proclaimed what Mircea Eliade has called “the Eternal return.”

Some New Year festivals were more important than others, above all when new rulers took the throne and acted the role of the sun-god for the first time– and put the world back in order by proclaiming an economic amnesty so as to inaugurate their reign in an auspicious manner. Other important occasions were the dedication of new temples or the rebuilding or extension of existing ones. As Henri Frankfort (1953:11) has described the logic of these proclamations: “The inauguration of the temple took place on New Year’s Day, so that the new beginning, which had been brought about by so great an effort of all, would be carried forward on the current of the new life which now set in.”

When the ruler proclaimed justice at these festivals, he raised a flaming torch signalling his act (or possibly a golden torch symbolizing justice). This was the Bronze Age idea of enlightenment, and it forms the takeoff point from which Biblical practices would be modified in the first millennium. The Babylonian ruler Ammisaduqa, for instance, was praised as having risen like the sun over his land to establish “straight (correct) order” for his subjects.

Misharum acts after Hammurapi

By the time Ammisaduqa (1646-1626) took the throne, misharum acts had become very detailed in order to block creditor attempts to evade them. These periodic restorations of the status quo ante were made relatively easy by the fact that even when the land was pledged, sold or temporarily relinquished to creditors foreclosing on personal or tax obligations, the debtors rarely were expelled from their lands.

The ideas of Sumerian amargi and nig.šiša , Assyrian andurarum, Babylonian misharum, Hebrew deror and related Near Eastern terms signify social justice not in an innovative reformist sense, but in a truly conservative one – a social cosmos that periodically restores a pre-existing status quo.

Hammurapi lay dying in 1749 BC, having ruled for forty-two years. A letter by his son Samsuiluna tells how, upon taking the throne, he found the land so burdened by debt that he remitted the payments in kind due from many types of royal tenants. To strengthen their position he “restored order(misharum) in the land,” remitting tax arrears and directing that all tablets be broken recording non-commercial debts. “In the land, nobody shall move against the `house’ of the soldier, the fisherman and other subjects.” His inaugural (second) year accordingly was named “The year in which Samsuiluna established freedom (amargi) in Sumer and Akkad,” using the old Sumerian term from nearly eight hundred years earlier.

His proclamation cancelled all agrarian debts that had accumulated since the last such misharum act some thirteen years earlier. Hammurapi had delegated substantial economic power to local leaders in exchange for their support, but neither Samsuiluna nor subsequent rulers found their interest to lie in benefiting these officials, merchants and other creditors at the expense of cultivators. Indeed, not to have restored the status quoante would have violated social tranquility as well as the balance of Babylonia’s economic cosmos that good rulers were supposed to oversee.

Even so, larger towns began to break away from Babylon during Samsuiluna’s rule (1749-1712). He proclaimed misharum again in 1741, but by this time much of Babylonia was so devastated that the marshy Sealand in the far south managed to conquer the land as far north as Nippur. Under these conditions traditional restrictions limiting the sale of rural land outside of local kin groupings were loosened. Fields and other properties passed into the hands of temple and palace officials with ready cash.

Samsuiluna’s successor Abi-Eshuh (1711-1684 BC) proclaimed misharumupon taking of the throne, as did his successor Ammiditana (1683-1647), who repeated these acts in 1662 and 1647. By the time Ammisaduqa (1646-1626) took the throne, misharum acts had become very detailed in order to block creditor attempts to evade them. Ammisaduqa declaredmisharum upon his accession and again ten years later, in 1636. His act is the longest and most detailed of all the Mesopotamian rulers. It is the only complete misharum act on record, and is the last major document of the Amorite dynasty. A key document for understanding the Bronze Age economic cosmos, it provides a virtual map of the various type of financial relations and land tenure arrangements in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries BC.

Ammisaduqa’s inaugural 1646 edict annulled the agrarian debts that had been run up by cultivators during the preceding reign, that is, since 1662. Creditors or tax officials who had foreclosed on such debts were obliged to “refund whatever he received through collection. He who does not make a refund in accordance with the royal decree shall die” (§5, in ANET 3 lines 36-41). If a creditor “prematurely collected by means of pressure, he must refund all that he received through such collection or be put to death.”

Obviously we are not dealing with a merely literary cosmological principle. Ammisaduqa’s act goes out of its way to “anticipate a certain amount of skullduggery and fraud aimed at circumventing the effect of the edict,” observes Finkelstein (1969:58). Law suits of the period bear this out. It seems that when rulers proclaimed misharum , all tax and debt tablets were supposed to be handed over to the authorities to be broken, along with all rural property contracts. “Astounding as it must appear to our normally skeptical eyes,” he concludes (1965:244ff.), instead of themisharum institution being “a pious but futile gesture,” the fact is that “at the promulgation of the misharum formal commissions were established to review real-estate sales.”

Anticipating that some creditors might try to perpetrate a deception by having their claims “drawn up as a sale or a bailment and then persist in taking interest,” Ammisaduqa’s edict voided such documents, thereby annulling the transfers (§6). As in §5, creditors arrogant enough to try and “sue against the house of an Akkadian or an Amorite for whatever he had loaned him” were threatened with the death penalty. The following paragraph laid down a similar punishment for creditors who tried to conceal their barley or silver loan as a bona fide mercantile investment for an equity share in the profit rather than for interest. Subsequent paragraphs provide more details elaborating the edict’s legal force.

These periodic restorations of the status quo ante were made relatively easy by the fact that even when the land was pledged, sold or temporarily relinquished to creditors foreclosing on personal or tax obligations, the debtors rarely were expelled from their lands. Harvesting and other rural functions continued with the same personnel and in much the same way. Unlike the case in Roman Republican times, lands passing into the hands of creditors were not stocked with slaves. What changed was the nominal but usually only temporary ownership of the land, and consequently the distribution of crops or income as between the cultivator-occupant and absentee creditor-become-owner. The important thing is that cultivators were able to survive without losing their land and personal freedom permanently, and hence without having to flee the country as would become a widespread practice throughout the Near East by about 1400.

Ammisaduqa’s edict (§20) proclaims freedom for debt-bondservants, much as Hammurapi’s laws had advocated their freedom after three years (compared to six years in Deuteronomy). However, neither set of laws freed outright slaves. Household servants simply were returned to their former families. Thus, what was restored was not universal liberty, but thestatus quo ante , as Charpin 1987 has rightly emphasized. For the Babylonians, mountain girls and other “bought” slaves would have remained in servitude, just as non-Israelites in the later Biblical laws. The liberty was restricted to bondservants who had lost their freedom or lands through debt.

The ideas of Sumerian amargi and nig.šiša, Assyrian andurarum,Babylonian misharum , Hebrew deror and related Near Eastern terms signify social justice not in an innovative reformist sense, but in a truly conservative one — a social cosmos that periodically restores a preexisting status quo (inevitably an idealized one, to be sure). This normalized state of affairs included a world economically in balance, above all one with a free land-tenured peasant infantry. Perhaps we should think of these edicts more as “restoration” or “renewal” acts. With regard to their integration of cosmological and practical social renewal, both the Babylonians and the Biblical authors used calendrical periodicities as the most convenient, traditional and hence conservative peg for their social ethic of cancelling debts and restoring liberty to the land and its citizens. When a local chieftain named Shunuhrarahalu wrote to Mari’s ruler Zimri-Lim urging him to get a neighboring headman in Gashera to emulate him by proclaiming andurarum, this certainly was not merely cosmological proselytizing but a policy considered to be socially (and probably militarily) necessary (Charpin 1987:41).

No misharum proclamations are found after the rule of Ammisaduqa. In 1595 BC Babylon fell to Iranian mountain tribesmen, the Kassites, who ruled for nearly half a millennium, until 1155 BC. The absence of centralized palace control during this Dark Age is indicated by the lack of written records or laws. The implication is that trade and even management of local temples was passing into the hands of private families who did not need to keep formal records. The major trade documents that have survived are letters between Kassite rulers and their foreign counterparts exchanging prestige-gifts and arranging dynastic intermarriages in the cosmopolitan Amarna Age.

Proverbs of the period reflect how Babylonian society was getting poorer for most folk. “The strong man lives off what is paid for his strength, and the weak man off what is paid for his children,” i.e. debt slavery (Lambert 1960:248). “The opulent nouveau riche… heaps up goods” and “has multiplied his wealth” (ibid:52f ). This proverb is from a Babylonian “Theodicy” deploring how the gods have come to “speak in favor of a rich man” and let riches go to him despite the fact that the rich “harm a poor man like a thief. . . and extinguish him like a flame.” In the so-called Dialogue of Pessimism, “the awilum who makes (grain) loans as a creditor – his grain remains his grain, while his interest is enormous (ibid:149).

Nuzian shudutu proclamations

Many Babylonian institutions survived by way of upstream Euphrates border states, such as Nuzi, a Hurrian-speaking town in the land of Arrapha. Its word for debt cancellation was shudutu, a translation of Babylonian simdat, “proclamation,” connoting a general release orandurarum for real estate as well as for bondservants. Public acts of notification seem to have been “necessary in all business transactions involving slaves and land, and whenever the status of a person underwent a change” (Lacheman 1965:233). Shudutu proclamations required “all who may have had claim upon the property involved to present them, doubtless within a certain period of time, to the authorities.”

The shudutu clause is first found in contracts for Ennamati, the son of a local headman and palace collector Tehib-Tilla, whose business affairs were so extensive that he employed over forty scribes. Subsequent Nuzian contracts contain much the same assurances as are found in Babylonia, stating that they were drawn up since the last proclamation and hence were immune from annulment until the ruler should make a new such edict. Finkelstein (1965:241) concludes that “The attitudes amounted essentially to a resistance in principle to the alienation of patrimonial land, the establishment of procedures and institutions for the redemption of such land after it had been alienated, or – as was the case at Nuzi – to cloaking such alienation in a formal dress that would retain the pretense of loyalty to the sacrosanct principle.”

Expropriation of cultivators from the land to become hapiru

The shorthand phrase “justice and righteousness” carries the same meaning in the first millennium that it had earlier, not as a harmlessly abstract idea of `freedom” or an otherworldly expression of utopian philosophy, but a highly specific renewal of general liberty by thwarting the consolidation of a predatory economic aristocracy such as ultimately cannibalized the Hellenistic and Roman world.

Prior to the second millennium, Mesopotamia’s ethnic intermixing had catalyzed the formation of cities as entrepots, of temples as sponsors of commercial equity, and cultural breakthroughs such as syllabic cuneiform (largely to render alien names). But subsequent contracts took the form more of an overlayering, from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. This was associated with deurbanization, transforming the countryside and its economic relations, and also with a decline in recordkeeping (which is what makes the epoch “dark” to historians).

Despite conservative reactions against the land’s privatization by wealthy creditors – a reaction long backed by palace rulers to prevent the emergence of economically powerful rivals – the land was being closed off to a growing proportion of the rural population. No urban industry yet existed to absorb free labor, so that many individuals left their native lands to become hapiru (LuSA.GAZ in Sumerian ideograms), landless have-nots working sometimes as migrant seasonal labor or as mercenaries, or simply joined robber bands. Many seem to have been of Amorite stock, fleeing the feudal-type privatization that spread from Mesopotamia through the rest of the Near East, but the agrarian problem was so widespread that the termhapirudid not yet signify a national or ethnic identity such as the Hebrews subsequently were represented to be. Diakonoff (1982:55f , 96) finds the major motive for their exodus to have been usury. “They appear simultaneously with the mass enslavement for debt at the coming of the 2nd millennium BC, and disappear without leaving [a] trace when enslavement ceases to play an important role, shortly before the coming of the 1st millennium BC.”

Thus, whereas southern Mesopotamia originally had been settled by neolithic fugitives, the new fugitives poured out of Mesopotamia, to the northwest. Unable to take over any major region, they were confined to the least desirable areas such as the mountainous areas of eastern Canaan, where the archaeological record picks them up around 1400 BC. Egyptian officials complain about their incursions behind an opportunistic leader Abdi-Ashirta.

Here, in Amarna Age Canaan, we see for the first time armed uprisings based on political policy. Lines are being drawn between rich and poor, landowners and landless, and above all between creditors and debtors. A local administrator Rib-Addi writes to the pharaoh: “Behold now, Abdi-Ashirta has taken Shigata for himself and has said to the people of Ammiya: `Kill your chiefs and become like us; then you shall have peace.’ And they fell away in accordance with his message and became like GAZ/hapiru” (Greenberg 1955:34, which gives all the extant references; on this phenomenon see also Artzi 1964, Mendenhall 1973 and Liverani 1989). Abdi-Ashirta is reported to have promised his army that “we shall drive the governors out of the midst of the lands, and all the lands will go over to the GAZ/hapiru” Although there is no specific appeal here to cancelling the population’s debts and redistributing the lands, this seems implicit. It certainly became the revolutionary cry throughout Greece from the seventh century BC through the remainder of antiquity (Finley 1973:173; see also 1981:161 and 1983:108f.).

Egypt and its sed festivals

Few Christians today recognize that when they pronounce the word “Hallelujah,” they are repeating the ritual term alulu chanted to signify the freeing of Babylonian debt-slaves, a rite followed by anointing the manumitted individual’s head with oil. The term putam … ullulu referred to cleansing the former slave’s forehead – a term used by second millennium rulers in their misharum proclamations Dandamaev 1984:445).

We owe our modern understanding of hieroglyphics to the Rosetta Stone. Unearthed in 1799 by Napoleon’s soldiers during his campaign into the Nile Delta, it is a trilingual ceremonial text honoring the 13-year old ruler Ptolemy V in 196 BC. By comparing its Greek, hieroglyphic and demotic Egyptian scripts, the French decipherer Champollion was able to translate the old writing. Ever since, the term “Rosetta stone” has been a symbol for an intellectual key unlocking a puzzle.

What is less well-remembered is the Rosetta Stone’s content. It commemorates a debt cancellation by the young king. Such proclamations had become traditional for pharaohs prior to the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy, who founded his dynasty in 305 BC. After more than a century of rule, the Ptolemies finally were getting into the flow of ancient tradition. Acting more like the pharaohs of old than as a military overlord, Ptolemy V was welcomed by the priestshood as “the living image of Zeus/Amon, son of the Sun.” The inscription records that “he has remitted the debts to the crown which were owed by the people in Egypt and those in the rest of his kingdom, which were considerable, and he has freed those who were in the prisons and who were under accusation for a long time from the charges against them,” as well as remitting various taxes and duties, including “the debts of the temples to the royal treasury up to the 8th year” of his rule (198/7). (The entire text is translated in Austin 1981:374ff.).

Weinfeld (1982:501f. and 1985:319) traces the pedigree of such proclamations back to the early pharaohs and, beyond them, to the Sumerian amargi and Babylonian misharum acts as part of a general Near Eastern practice. The phrase signifying an Egyptian amnesty meant “to let everyone return to his home” (or “home-town”), i.e. a return to their origin or mother, recalling Sumerian amargi. Rameses IV (1153-1146) proclaims “that he has caused those who had fled to return to their home(towns)…. The naked are clothed … those who were in bonds are free again: those who were in chains rejoice.” A paean composed for his accession or its anniversary festival announces that “those who were in bonds are free again” (Smith 1968:212). An inscription on a temple block at Elephantine by his father, Rameses III (1184-1153), announces that he freed temple personnel from corvée duties and performed other good works “after justice was established in this land.”

To be sure, Egyptian ma’at does not have the same connotation of restoring order economically as is found in Babylonian kittum and its analogues for “justice.” Indeed, Egyptian society was in many ways antithetical to that of Mesopotamia. Egyptian religion and temples were more otherworldly, being concerned more with the pharaoh’s afterlife than with worldly commercial relations (Helck 1975:282f). Still, like other Bronze Age laws, those of Egypt reflected principles of equity associated with the sun-god of justice. The accession ceremonies were similar, as Mesopotamia’s New Year festival found its counterpart in Egypt’s sedfestival, long tailed a “Jubilee” because of its kinship with the Hebrewyobel year of release. However, the early Clean Slates proclaimed by the pharaohs took the form mainly of political and fiscal amnesties forgiving exile, other punishments and tax arrears – not private debts.

The extent to which debt-servitude existed is not documented in Early Dynastic times. Records have survived mainly on stone ceremonial monuments, not on the more perishable papyrus used for civil record-keeping. Where slaves are documented, they are captured war prisoners, not debt servants. It is near the end of the New Kingdom (1552-664 BC) that a pharoah whose name was Grecianized as Bocchoris (717-711 BC?) is reported to have freed Egyptians from debt-servitude and banned debt-slavery. Diodorus Siculus (1.79) attributed to him a logic which certainly seems characteristic from Bronze Age times onward: Bocchoris reputedly felt that “the bodies of citizens should belong to the state, to the end that the state might avail itself of the services which its citizens owed it, in times of both war and peace. For it would be absurd, he felt, that a soldier, at the moment perhaps when he was setting forth to fight for his fatherland, should be haled to prison by his creditor for an unpaid loan, and that the greed of private citizens should in this way endanger the safety of all.”

It was precisely the private seizure of lands and their cultivators for debt that royal economic order proclamations was designed to prevent. But as palace power waned, such seizures occurred – and with them arose a general flight from the land throughout much of the Near East.

Neo-Assyrian andurarum acts to maintain peasant-army loyalty

Records dwindle throughout the Near East after about 1350, and events become completely undocumented after 1200. Out of the general turmoil emerged a new Assyrian empire, this time as a military rather than commercial force. Recognizing the folly of letting the economy be polarized by debt relations, its rulers consolidated their military strength by proclaiming andurarum to maintain a free (and hence, loyal) peasant army. Postgate (1973:231 and texts #10 and #248) finds that Assyrian rulers “might initiate an `amnesty,’ and that this would lead to the cancellation of enslavement for debt.” Anticipation of such proclamations is attested in surviving contracts for slave sales, with the sellers promising to reimburse buyers if the bondsmen should be freed. Noting the absence of Assyrian royal titles such as “preserver of law and lover of justice,” he concludes (1974:417 and text #132) that Sargon II and his successors adopted the practice from Babylonia, where proclaiming order and freeing debt-servants remained a sacred royal duty.

How Babylonian practices inspired Biblical debt cancellations and land redistribution

The Israelites likewise seem to have picked up the Clean Slate idea from Babylonia, although the Hebrew word deror is cognate to Assyrianandurarum rather than to Babylonian misharum. The first period of transmission would have been during the Bronze Age as part of the general diffusion of southern Mesopotamian practices. The second transmission would have occurred during the century-and-a-half Babylonian “captivity,” 586-444 BC.

No doubt a diffusion of Babylonian practices occurred in both periods. In any event the shorthand phrase “justice and righteousness” carries the same meaning in the first millennium that it had earlier, not as a harmlessly abstract idea of “freedom” or an otherworldly expression of utopian philosophy, but a highly specific renewal of general liberty by thwarting the consolidation of a predatory economic aristocracy such as ultimately cannibalized the Hellenistic and Roman world.

One vehicle for the diffusion of misharum/andurarum/deror would have been the Babylonian New Year festival, still celebrated in the first millennium as a royal vanquishing of the forces of disorder. (The ruler acted the role of the neo-Babylonian sun-god of justice, Marduk.) A universal Near Eastern phenomenon, such New Year reordering. and their proclamations of justice are found in the neo-Assyrian empire and in the religion of Canaanite Baal as well as in Israelite law. Thomas Gaster’sThespis (1950), reviews the impact of the Babylonian New Year and Baal literature on Jewish holidays, psalms and other religious manifestations, while Weinfeld (1982) surveys this continuum in Near Eastern legal ideology. (Especially significant for this continuum are Psalms 96-99, 68-69 and 33). So prevalent was the influence that few Christians today recognize that when they pronounce the word “Hallelujah,” they are repeating the ritual term `alulu chanted to signify the freeing of Babylonian debt-slaves, a rite followed by anointing the manumitted individual’s head with oil. The term putam… ullulu referred to cleansing the former slave’s forehead – a term used by second millennium rulers in their misharum proclamations (Dandamaev 1984:445).


We do not have the original version of Deuteronomy as presented to Josiah, but only the post-exilic elaboration of the laws. In this final form they were once again subjected to nearly two centuries of Babylonian cultural influence by the Jewish community in exile. To call the septennial freeing of debt servants and the institution of the Jubilee Year a “folk memory” is to dodge the issue of just how the practice survived and was modified into Jewish law. Josiah’s anger that the old Deuteronomic laws had been abandoned suggests that the memory had lapsed. In such cases, practices must be introduced anew. In this case the Deuteronomic laws were made public by royal edict, under the council of the temple priesthood. This centralized policy-making nexus enabled the laws to be restated in a new, theocratic context. Thus, while the idea of periodic renewal is found even in the religion of Baal and other rivals to the Yahweh religion, the central core idea had once been so widespread as a common denominator that it would be futile to try to pinpoint a given instant of transmittal to the Canaanite and Israelite lands.

The subsequent Biblical narrative telescopes this transmittal into a single dramatic episode – that of Moses bringing the laws from Zion after the exodus from Egypt. But whereas the Egyptian sed festival mirrored the Sumerian and Babylonian model, proclaiming amnesty for exiles, the debt laws seem specifically Mesopotamian. The only precedent for debt cancellations – and indeed, for interest-bearing debt – is in Mesopotamia and the rest of the Near East outside of Egypt.

The Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 by members of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, made possible the deciphering of hieroglyphics in 1822 by JeanFrancois Champollion. What is less well known is that the inscription commemorates a debt cancellation by Ptolemy V (204-180 BC) in 196 BC.

Following ancient tradition, the 13-year-old Pharaoh was crowned at Memphis and pro claimed a general amnesty on the occasion of his coming of age and accession to the throne.

The basalt stone has three parallel texts. Egyptian hieroglyphics (archaic official script) are on top, and Egyptian demotic (a popular script) is in the middle. On the bottom is Greek text, reflecting the fact that the dynasty was founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy, who seized Egypt in 305 BC after Alexander’s death.

Ptolemy V’s debt cancellation reflects a declining economy plagued by “pressure of taxes, rapid accumulation of arrears and … confiscations, prisons full of criminals and public and private debtors … fugitives scattered all over the country and living by robbery, [and] compulsion applied in every sphere of life,” including military conscription. “The natural results were scarcity of labour, gradual depopulation of villages, abandonment of fields, deterioration of land, neglect of dikes and canals, and … an atmosphere of war and unrest.*

Philanthropa edicts (royal good works) were a time-honored tradition going back to the Bronze Age. They “were first and foremost proclamations of peace or grants of amnesty. They all began with the same formula: the kings give general pardon to all their subjects for ,errors, crimes, accusations, condemnations, and charges of all kinds’ up to a certain date. . . . “there followed a general concession to all the population: a remission of taxes until a certain date” (ibid.:879f).

*Mikhail Rostovtzeff, Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (1941:11, 713).

Continue to Part 2

Print Friendly, PDF & Email