Photo by Erich Lessing

Crowned with the turban of kingship and cloaked in a dedicatory inscription, the Sumerian ruler Gudea of Lagash sits in serene splendor. Excavated from ancient Girsu in modern Iraq and dating to the third millennium B.C.E., this diorite statue is one of nearly 20 of Gudea, making him one of the best-known Sumerian leaders. Sumerian rulers were the first to declare debt cancellation policies, called clean slates, as part of their rule. Gudea’s clean slate proclamations were recorded on the skirts of a couple of his statues. Like the later Jubilee law recorded in Leviticus 25, which scholars date to the sixth century B.C.E., clean slates returned land to its original owners and liberated those who had been forced into servitude by their debts. Israel’s Jubilee law has long been dismissed as an unworkable ideal by scholars, but economist Michael Hudson demonstrates that it was part of a long-standing Near Eastern tradition of clean slates and maintained a nation’s political and economic stability.