By: William Jackson
As we begin to read the Exodus in the Torah, we find a biblical riddle that has stumped people for ages, “how long were the children of Israel in Egypt?”. It seems straight forward when Moses tells us that they were there for 430 years in Exodus 12:40-41. Yet, further back in Genesis 15:13 God says to Abraham that his people will be oppress for 400 years. Another issue that seems to surface, is that if we do the chronological math from Joseph’s brothers moving to Egypt and the Exodus, it is only 215 years.
So what is the answer 215 years in Egypt under oppression versus 430 years or even 400 years? Let’s tackle the smallest number first, determining the 215 years in Egypt. If we add up the chronological linages in Genesis 46 and Exodus 6 we come up with 215 years rather than 400 or 430 years. Other good points are that in the cases of Moses linage (Genesis 46:11, Exodus 6) and the infamous Reubenites who rebelled against Moses (Numbers 16) only two generations passed since entering Egypt (Genesis 46:9, Numbers 26:8–9). This would appear that 215 years are more realistic than 400 or 430 years.
So what about the 400 and 430 years? If we dig even deeper and examine the text maybe we will find our answer. We see that God said to Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 15:3 “… your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs…”. His seed would be Israel (Jacob) but also anybody else that came from him (Abraham), i.e. Isaac. In addition, it doesn’t specify Egypt here, it clearly states that they (Abraham’s seed) “will be strangers in a land that is not theirs”. Remember that Israel will not inherent its own land until they drove out Canaan’s inhabitants (Deuteronomy 9:1-6). In support of this we hear Abraham say he was “a stranger in a strange land” in Genesis 23:4. He makes this statement in Canaan, the future Israel. So the clock for the 400 years would have started in Genesis 15 and not when Jacob’s clan entered Egypt (Genesis 45:4–6, 47:9). Yet, if God states that Abraham’s people will be in a strange land for 400 years, why does Moses say they lived in Egypt for 430 years ( Exodus 12:40–41)? Well, when God told Abraham his people would be strangers in a strange land it was in Genesis 15, Abraham was on the road for quite some time before getting this message from God. In fact, it was first recorded that he went into Egypt three chapters earlier (Genesis 12:10). In truth, Abraham was in Egypt years before being told that his people would be strangers in a strange land for 400 years. This could explain the 30 year discrepancy.
Here is a specific breakdown of the 215 years before Abraham’s people entered Egypt as Israel1:
2nd 60 years passed from the birth of Isaac until the birth of Jacob (Genesis 25:26)
3rd 130 years passed from the birth of Jacob until he and his descendants moved to Egypt (Genesis 47:9)
Now let us look at the 215 years after Jacob entered Egypt2:
1st Joseph reveals himself to his brothers two years into the famine with five years left (Genesis 45:4–6,47:9)
2nd 17 years pass and Jacob dies (Genesis 47:28–49:33).
3rd 54 years pass and Joseph dies (Genesis 50:26).
4th 64 years pass from the time Joseph dies to when Moses is born (Exodus 6:16–20).
5th Moses is 80 years old when he speaks to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:7, 12:40–41).
As bizarre as it might seem, our answers do not conflict, our questions do. Simply stated, for each of our three answers (215, 400 and 430 years), we have three separate questions respectfully: 1. “How long was Israel in Egypt under oppression?”, 2. “How long will Abraham’s seed be a stranger without a home?” and 3. “How long was Abraham and his people in Egypt?”. Sometimes we gain more on the journey to our answers than the answers themselves. To quote Moshe Ben-Chaim, “The Torah was purposefully written in a cryptic style so as to engage the mind in this most prized activity of analysis, induction, deduction and thought”. When we hit an obstacle in our readings we do not have a problem, we have a reason to study.
- “How Many Years Were the Israelites in Egypt?” TheTorah.com. Accessed January 23, 2018. http://thetorah.com/how-many-years-were-the-israelites-in-egypt/.
- Wright, David. “How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?” Answers in Genesis. July 05, 2010. Accessed January 23, 2018. https://answersingenesis.org/bible-questions/how-long-were-the-israelites-in-egypt/.