Discuss the evidence for and against the claim that Judah was completely depopulated during the middle of the sixth century B.C.E.
The “Myth of the Empty Land” was an article written by Robert Carroll who pointed out that a number of places in the Hebrew Bible depicts the land as empty during the exile. Carroll argued that this was an ideological ploy by the returnees to disenfranchise those who remained behind and provide further legitimization for the returnees as the rightful occupiers of the land. A controversial monograph by Hans Barstad, The Myth of the Empty Land (1996) accused modern scholars beginning in the 19th century of believing this myth that the land of Judah was completely depopulated after the Babylonian invasion. Barstad argued for minimal impact on the exile to the population left behind. He notes that only the elite were taken, but there were plenty of people, even skilled laborers, who could carry on the economic activity in Judah under Babylonian oversight. This monograph came at a turbulent time in the 1990s when much of what scholarship thought they knew about the history of Israel was being radically questioned. Rather than quibble about what scholars thought or didn’t think (whether Barstad has set up a straw man), this essay will examine the evidence for the condition of the land during exile as it is reported in the textual data and archaeology.
For this time period unfortunately we have limited sources for Babylonian military campaigns. We have the Babylonian Chronicles (a modern name for a group of tablets that provide a year by year chronicle of events) that are extant for the years 626-623 and 616-594 BCE. The entry for the seventh year of Nebuchanezzar’s reign (597 BCE) states
“The seventh year, in the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched on Ḫatti, and set up his quarters facing the city of Yeḫud. In the month of Adar, the second day, he took the city and captured the king (i.e. Jehoiachin). He installed there a king of his choice (i.e. Zedekiah). He colle[ected] its massive tribute and went back to Babylon” (MC 25).
This is rather uninformative, since the depiction of the siege and capture of the city is un-descriptive, though it surely would have had an economic impact. It is unfortunately lost for the more significant campaign in 586 BCE. Assyrian sources are no longer available with the fall of the Assyrian empire and Babylonian royal inscriptions do not normally include military activities.
The Hebrew Bible contains accounts in the historical books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles for the campaigns and deportations of the Nebuchadnezzar. The prophetic book of Jeremiah overlaps with Babylonian military activity in Judah and provides some important data that is unfortunately conflicting with what is known in the historical books.
- 2 Kgs 24 (v. 12 = 8th year of Nebuchadnezzar)
- vv.10-11 – Nebuchadnezzar and his servants besiege Jerusalem
- v. 12 – takes Jehoiachin and his mother and servants, his princes and eunuchs
- v. 13 – removes temple treasures
- v. 14 – “He exiled all Jerusalem and all the princes and all the valorous warriors, 10,000 exiles
- v. 15 – Exiled Jehoiachin, his wives, his eunuchs, and the “mighty of the land”
- v. 16 – Exiled all the men of valour 7000 and the craftsmen and smiths 1000
- 2 Kings 25 (v.8 – 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar)
- v. 1-4 – Two year siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar
- v. 9 – Nebuzar-adan burns temple, palace, all the houses of Jerusalem and every house of a great one
- v.10 – walls of Jerusalem are torn down
- v. 11 – Nebuzar-adan exiles the remainder of the people in the city, the defectors, and the remainder of the multitude
- v. 12 – leaves the poor of the land to take care of vineyards and flocks.
- v.13-17 – takes temple treasures
- v. 18 – takes chief priest and the second priest and three keepers of the door
- v. 19 – takes 67 more men from the city
- v. 20-21 – kills the 67 men at Riblah
- v. 22 – Nebuzar-adan places Gedaliah over “the people who remained in the land”
- v.23-25 – coup d’etat against Gedaliah
- v. 26 – “All the people small and great and the captains of the armies rose up and entered Egypt because they feared the Chaldeans.”
- Jeremiah 52 (identical to 2 Kgs 24-25, except for v. 28-30 outlining exiles)
- v. 28 – 7th year of Nebuchanezzar, 3,023 exiles
- v. 29 – 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar, 832 exiles
- v. 30 – 23rd year of Nebuchadnezzar 832 exiles
- 2 Chronicles 36:17-21
- v. 17 – King of the Chaldeans kills the young men with the sword in the house of the their sanctuary; did not spare young man or young woman, the old or decrepit
- v.18 – takes treasures of the temple and king and his captains
- v. 19 – Burns the temple and tears down the wall of Jerusalem
- v. 20 – He exiles those who were spared by the sword
- v. 21 – fulfills the word of Jeremiah that the land would enjoy its Sabbaths all the days of the desolation
- Lev 26:27-39 (esp 34-35) – the land will enjoy its Sabbaths and be desolate
The archaeological record shows that the area north of Jerusalem, the region of Benjamin was largely untouched by all the events of Judah’s fall. Included in this area is the site of Tell en-Naṣbeh (Mizpah), the center of government for Gedaliah which is probably a reason that it was spared the fate of the surrounding areas and actually increased in population from preceding times. Most of the population in the region moved to the central area around Mizpah, Gibeon, and Gibeah. Thus, areas to the north of Benjamin were fairly empty and the east were reduced. The central area and west of Benjamin prospered in the 6th century but began to decline at the beginning of the Persian period.
Jerusalem and its surrounding show that there was widespread destruction. The western border of Judah was also ravaged at the same time. Although the destruction of settlements to the east and south are attested it is not clear if these happened at the same time or if it was gradual. Evidence for destruction can be seen at Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir), Arad, En-gedi, and Jericho. Most of the cities that were destroyed are those that had fortifications.
The “empty land” that would enjoy its Sabbaths is found in Leviticus, Jeremiah, and Chronicles. It seems that from these passages that the entire nation would be killed or exiled so that the land could rest. However, this does not seem to be what is described in the historical narratives found in Jeremiah and 2 Kings which tends to localize the destructions around Jerusalem. The number of exiles and the amount taken during the Babylonian campaigns varies between 2 Kings and Jeremiah, but the narrative focuses on Jerusalem and its immediate areas, not the entire nation. The “poor of the land” remain behind to take care of the land still under a ruler that was selected and legitimized by the Babylonian king. Despite the siege, killing, and destruction there appeared to still be an administrative structure, lands, and animals that needed tending, and people to do it. The archaeological data seems to match the historical narratives of 2 Kings and Jeremiah, showing that the area around the administrative center of the new regime (Mizpah and central Benjamin) showed growth and prosperity into the Persian period, while fortified settlements around Jerusalem show widespread destruction (Lachish and Arad).
It is impossible to tell through archaeology or through the textual account as it stands how many Judeans were killed and exiled outside of Jerusalem. Considering the fact that Nebuchadnezzar was rather lenient during his 597 BCE attack on Jerusalem, we may conjecture that he was not so lenient in putting down a twice rebellious nation. We can assume that many lives were lost and a large amount of plunder was taken by the soldiers from the nation, but it is also evident that the north was untouched enough to continue and prosper.
Barstad, Hans M. The Myth of the Empty Land: A Study in the History and Archaeology of Judah during the “Exilic” Period. Scandinavian University Press, 1996. Carroll, Robert P. “The Myth of the Empty Land.” Semeia no. 59 (January 1, 1992): 79–93. Hayes, John, and J. Maxwell Miller. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006. Lipschits, Oded. “The History of the Benjamin Region under Babylonian Rule.” Tel Aviv 26 (1999): 155–190.