Forget the pyramid on the dollar bill. Forget the eagle’s talons on the Great Seal. Forget the Zapruder film. The biggest “hide in plain sight” American Mystery resides in Philadelphia, permanently cast on our beloved Liberty Bell. Its well-known inscription from Leviticus — “proclaim liberty throughout the land and its inhabitants thereof” — sounds straightforward enough. But isn’t that how these hidden messages always seem to work?
For the first clue, we have to break a code. Any 18th century New England clergy in the audience is invited to step up and give us a hand. Apparently, there’s a problem with how the original Hebrew text describes “liberty.” The bible uses the word “dror,” an obscure, multiple-meaning term, even though there are several spot-on words that would denote political liberty with far less ambiguity. This anomaly is a red flare, equivalent to “why did the suspect take a different route to work the morning his wife was murdered?”
Based on the other biblical appearances of dror, we begin to see that this is not your average word. Ezekiel invokes dror when referring to the return of landed property to the original owners. Exodus employs the term as an adjective to define a degree of ultimate purity in the spice myrrh. Psalm 84 identifies dror as a particular species of bird, a kind that refuses to be tamed, making its nest as freely in human habitation as in the fields or woods. What’s going on here? Is the Liberty Bell telling us to be as free as birds?
The 19th century linguistic genius Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch straightens this out: he explains that each different appearance use of dror is ultimately about the same concept, namely “achieving the natural state” to which that person or object integrally belongs. Freedom as described on the bell, then, would seem to be the “default state” of mankind, a destiny if not a social debt.
Every ancient mystery needs a secret number — and ours is 50. The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the bell in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges. The liberty inscription was apt because the preceding biblical verse discusses the Jubilee year, a culmination of seven sets of seven years.
This Jubilee number, under-girded by the square of seven, is by no means “natural.” Unlike days, months or years, there is no corresponding astronomical marker for what we know as the week. The members of the Assembly no doubt understood the Jubilee to be a celebration of a covenantal relationship between man and that Creator who works in sevens.
Finally, a juicy generational conspiracy demands a dollop of the paranormal — and ours does not disappoint. Insightful as the Assembly may have been, could they have seen the future? Could they have known that on the other side of July 4, 1776 — exactly fifty years later, that jubilee would be consecrated by the return of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to their own ultimate natural state? These great men had explicitly acknowledged that the first test of the Republic would be for it to endure fifty years. Both men lived to see that day, but not a day more. We arrive at a kind of temporal (bell-curved) palindrome. This Liberty Bell — inscribed with a verse that is a celebration of fifty — itself celebrates a past and future jubilee event. As Ben Franklin might have said, how weird is that?
FINE — WE HAVE BROKEN the code. But can we understand the message? Let me take a crack.
The relationship between America and the Almighty was born in ambiguity and remains so. We are a country explicitly without a national religion, and yet our birth is soaked in religiosity. Our Founders, each integrating rationalist enlightenment philosophy into his own personal view of religion, often threw off mixed messages with enough sound bites for both sides to claim them as one of their own. This week’s split decision on the Ten Commandments is a perfect metaphor for our 239 years of irresolution.
Into our own fallen world, the bell remains. To our legacy of spiritual ambiguity, the bell functions like a pair of stereo-optic glasses, revealing clarity where the naked eye sees only fuzz. Liberty, it tells us, does not mean freedom from self-control. Neither does it mean freedom from social sanction. When Leviticus proclaims “dror” throughout the land and its inhabitants thereof, the bell is making the ultimate “natural” argument for human liberty — but there’s a catch. This “dror” is only as “natural” as the 49-year count that preceded it. In other words, the moral argument for freedom is based solely on a covenantal relationship with the Almighty. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote about men’s “unalienable rights” being “endowed by their Creator.” We do not need to hear the bell toll for it to remind us that there is no other way.