“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” reads the famous inscription encircling the top of the Liberty Bell. Borrowed from Leviticus 25:10, which describes the biblical Jubilee law, the inscription sounds like a call to independence, very much in keeping with the rhetoric of the American Revolution. And, in fact, the inscription may have more to do with American ideals than with the biblical law it quotes—or misquotes.

As Michael Hudson points out in the accompanying article, the Jubilee law was essentially an economic law, requiring that every 50 years all land be returned to its original owners, all debts be canceled and all bond servants be set free. A more accurate translation of Leviticus 25:10 highlights this deliverance from economic inequity: “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (New Jewish Publication Society translation).

Although today we celebrate the Liberty Bell as a symbol of the American Revolution, the bell preceded the revolution by 25 years—and was not raised to iconic status until 50 years afterwards. The bell was commissioned in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges in Pennsylvania. When King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York, granted Penn and his heirs title to a large tract of colonial land in the 1680s as payment for debts, Penn based the rules for the government of his province on Quaker ideals, especially that of religious freedom. Penn’s 1701 charter was not concerned specifically with economic freedom, however. The bell’s inscription was chosen instead as homage to Penn’s experimental form of government, which allowed the people of Pennsylvania to elect the members of their governing assembly.

The Liberty Bell pealed on July 8, 1776, to call people to the first public reading of the newly adopted Declaration of Independence. The bell became an American icon in the 1830s and 1840s when it was adopted as an emblem of the antislavery movement. It was first dubbed the “Liberty Bell” in an abolitionist pamphlet.

Today, the Liberty Bell is displayed in a park in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Because of its crack, the bell is no longer rung—although each Fourth of July it is symbolically tapped. (The cause and date of the crack is debated, but it is generally agreed that by Washington’s Birthday in 1846 the crack had expanded so much that the bell was rendered unringable.)

For many Americans, “Proclaim Liberty” may be the best-known passage from Leviticus. But the quotation on the Liberty Bell tells us more about the spirit of America than about the biblical text.