The Myth of the Empty Land

In 587 B.C. the Babylonian army conquered Jerusalem and deported a large part of the population of Judah. This was the second deportation of Judah. The first deportation occurred in 597 B.C. when King Jehoiachin, the royal family, and several prominent citizens of Judah were taken captive to Babylon.

After the conquest of Jerusalem in 587, the Babylonians plundered the city and took the remaining furnishings of the temple. A list of the items taken is found in 2 Kings 25:13-17. In addition, the captain of the Babylonian army deported several more people to Babylon: “Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had defected to the king of Babylon—all the rest of the population” (2 Kings 25:10-11).

According to the writer of the book of Chronicles, the deportation of the population occurred as a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years”
(2 Chronicles 36:20-21).

In 582 B.C., after the death of Gedaliah, the governor who ruled Judah under Babylonian authority, a third deportation of Judeans to Babylon took place (Jeremiah 52:30).

The statement in 2 Kings that Nebuzaradan carried into exile the rest of the people who were left in Jerusalem, “all the rest of the population” (2 Kings 25:10-11) and the statement in Chronicles that the land lay desolate for seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:20-21), give the impression that the land of Judah was deprived of population for seventy years. This view is called “The Myth of the Empty Land.”

The view that the land remained desolate and unpopulated for seventy years was also reinforced by a statement in Leviticus: “Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbath years. As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living on it” (Leviticus 26:34-35).

This ideology is also expressed in other sections of the Old Testament. For instance, the Deuteronomic Historian declares that after the deportation of Samaria, “none was left but the tribe of Judah alone” (2 Kings 17:18). Also, after the fall of Jerusalem, the biblical historian wrote: “So Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kings 25:21). These statements give the reader the impression that the land of Judah was left empty, devoid of population.

Because of these statements in the biblical record, some scholars have declared that between the first deportation of Judah in 597 B.C. and the first return of the exiles in 537 B.C. most of the cities and villages in Judah remained deserted.

However, the view that the land remained empty for seventy years contradicts other passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that a large portion of the population remained in the land. In addition, archaeological data seems to contradict the view that there was a complete depopulation of the cities and villages of Judah.

The total number of the people deported to Babylon is given in two places in the Old Testament: in the book of 2 Kings and in the book of Jeremiah. These are the figures given in 2 Kings:

Deportation of 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:14-16)

“He carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land. He carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon; the king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the elite of the land, he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. The king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, seven thousand, the artisans and the smiths, one thousand, all of them strong and fit for war.”

According to 2 Kings 24:12-16, 10,000 people were taken into exile, including the royal family, their servants, and the palace officials. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken to Babylon

Deportation of 587 B.C. (2 Kings 25:11-12)

“Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had defected to the king of Babylon– all the rest of the population. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (2 Kings 25:11-12).

The text does not give the number of people deported to Babylon, but it says that many people were left behind to cultivate the land.

According to Jeremiah, these are the numbers of the people deported to Babylon:

First deportation (597 B.C.): “This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadrezzar took into exile: in the seventh year, three thousand twenty-three Judeans.”

Second Deportation (587 B.C.): “In the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar he took into exile from Jerusalem eight hundred thirty-two persons.”

Third Deportation (582 B.C.): “In the twenty-third year of Nebuchadrezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took into exile of the Judeans seven hundred forty-five persons.”

Thus, according to Jeremiah, the total number of people deported to Babylon was “four thousand six hundred” (Jeremiah 52:28-30).

Although the figures in 2 Kings and Jeremiah do not agree, it is obvious that these numbers indicate that only a percentage of the total population was deported to Babylon.

Since Babylonian records indicate that most of the people deported lived in Jerusalem and in the major cities of Judah, it is doubtful that many villagers were deported or that every citizen of every major city was deported. The biblical record clearly indicates that many people were left behind: “the captain of the guard left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (2 Kings 25:12).

The fact that Gedaliah was able to establish some form of government in Mizpah is an indication that not everyone in Judah went into exile in Babylon. There is no doubt that the Babylonian army caused much devastation to Judah. The invasion of Judah caused significant loss of life, young and old. Many cities were left desolate and much property was destroyed. However, most people deported to Babylon were related to the royal family, the army, and the priesthood. Some of those deported were professional people who were taken in order to work for the Babylonian government.

Archaeologists and historians agree that the myth of the empty land does not find support either in archaeology or in history.

In the video below, Dr. Oded Lipschits, Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, presents archaeological evidence that addresses the empty land myth. His lecture, “The Myth of the Empty Land and the Myth of the Mass Return — A New Look on the History of Judah under Babylonian and Persian Rule,” was a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago, “the first of a series of annual lectures focusing on the history and archaeology of ancient Israel in memory of clinical psychologist Dr. David A. Kipper.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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