Published: 22 November 2021

How Long Were The Israelites Really In Egypt?

Israelites In Egypt

How long were the Israelites in Egypt? Conventional wisdom says they were there for 400 years. The problem with conventional wisdom is that it’s not always correct. Does the Bible say the Israelites were in Egypt that long? No it doesn’t, except in that one place where it does. 

When God “cut a covenant” with Abraham in Genesis 15, God gave Abraham a glimpse into his offspring’s future. 

13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen. 15:13–16 ESV)

Where did God say they’d be?

We must pay careful attention to what the text actually says here. It doesn’t say they would be in slavery for 400 years. It doesn’t say they would be in Egypt 400 years. What it says is that they would be enslaved and mistreated in a land not their own for 400 years. Canaan was a land not their own as was Egypt. In addition, Abraham and his offspring were not always treated well in Canaan (Gen 21:9, 25; 26:17-22, 27; 34:1-2). This 400 year time period is the sum of the time spent in both countries

Clearly we can interpret the above passage this way, but how do we know this is the correct interpretation? Is there a way to be sure that 400 years is the sum of the time spent in Canaan and Egypt? Fortunately, the New Testament helps us out.

16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. (Gal. 3:16–17 ESV)

Paul clearly states in Galatians that God gave the law 430 years after He made the promises to Abraham. Therefore, from the time God called Abraham out of Ur and made the promises to him (Gen 12) until Abraham’s offspring received the law at Mt. Sinai (Ex 20 and following), 430 years elapsed. 

The math doesn’t support a 400 year Egyptian sojourn

A 400 year sojourn in Egypt isn’t possible. We know that Abraham was 75 years old when God made the promises to him (Gen 12:4) and he lived in Canaan for another 100 years (Gen 25:7). Furthermore, Jacob (Abraham’s grandson) was 130 years old when he relocated to Egypt and met Pharaoh (Gen 47:9). We know that Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 (Gen 21:5) meaning that Abraham had been in Canaan 25 years at that point. Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born (Gen 25:26). Knowing these ages we can calculate how long Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in Canaan – 215 years (25+60+130). 

Image from https://youtu.be/FF0F8YjT1og

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spent 215 years in Canaan, so 430 – 215 = 215. Therefore, the maximum amount of time that Israel was in Egypt was 215 years, not 400! Josephus, a first century AD Jewish historian, also understood the 430 years to be the sum of 215 years in Canaan and 215 years in Egypt. He wrote:

the Israelites left Egypt in the month of Xanthicus, on the fifteenth day of the lunar month; four hundred and thirty years after our forefather Abraham came into Canaan, but two hundred and fifteen years only after Jacob removed into Egypt” (Antiquities of the Jews 2.15.2)[1]Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. New updated ed, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 74-75.

Why do we think Israel was in Egypt 400 years?

Where do people get the idea that Israel was in Egypt for 400 years? We get that idea from Exodus 12:40.

The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. (Ex. 12:40 ESV)

Something isn’t adding up. As it turns out the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), from which our English bibles are translated, deviates from translations such as the Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). These ancient versions of the Old Testament had access to Hebrew manuscripts which were more than 1000 years earlier than the MT. The LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch both include the time spent in Canaan in the 430 year sojourn.

And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Chanaan, was four hundred and thirty years. (Exod. 12:40 LXX)

Now the sojourning of the children of Israel and fathers of them, who dwelt in Canaan and in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.  (Exod. 12:40 Samaritan Pentateuch)

We have three ancient sources (Josephus, LXX, SP) which all agree that the figure of 430 years represented the time spent in both countries. Therefore, it would appear the MT may be the victim of a scribal omission. The simplest explanation for the discrepancy is that the MT has omitted “and the land of Canaan” from Ex. 12:40. 

Only four generations in Egypt

One additional consideration comes from God’s prophecy in Genesis 15:16. The text says Abraham’s offspring would return to Canaan in the fourth generation. There are a lot more than four generations in 400 years! Four generations of 53.75 years each will fit in a 215 years of sojourn in Egypt. This is a reasonable figure and fits with what God told Abraham. According to Ex 6:16-20 the four generations from Levi to Moses were:

  1. Levi
  2. Kohath
  3. Amram
  4. Moses & Aaron

Additionally, the table below lists the people of the exodus (that we have genealogies for) and how many generations removed they were from their tribal fathers (Levi, Judah, Reuben, etc.). As you can see, the generations listed are within the timeframe God stated in Genesis 15:16. 

Generations removed from tribal fathers.[2]Rendsburg, Gary A (Gary Alan). “The Internal Consistency and Historical Reliability of the Biblical Genealogies.” Vetus testamentum 40, no. 2 (April 1990): 189.

Clearly not every person listed was exactly four generations removed from the tribal fathers. No large group will contain people of exactly the same generation owing to differences in age:

“First, it is clear that people whose lines overlap need not all be the same age. The group which left Egypt, even if we speak only of the adults, could have included people ranging from age 20 to 70 and even older. They all would not all be the same number of generations away from Jacob’s sons. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the people who are only three generations removed from their tribal fathers are specifically what we might call the elder statesmen of the time. It is probably that Moses and Aaron were considerably older than others of the Exodus/Wandering generation(s).”[3]Ibid., 190.

Conclusion

It is clear from biblical passages examined above that the Egyptian sojourn could not have been 400 years long. First, ancient sources including the Apostle Paul, Josephus, and the text of the LXX and SP indicate that 430 years is the sum of the time spent in Canaan and Egypt. Second, it was the tribal father’s great-grandchildren who left Egypt. This was the fourth generation exactly as God had told Abraham. Lastly, Genesis gives us the means of calculating the time the Patriarchs lived in Canaan and it turns out to be 215 years. 

Grueling though it was, the Israelites were not slaves for nearly as long as conventional wisdom says.

References

References
1 Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. New updated ed, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 74-75.
2 Rendsburg, Gary A (Gary Alan). “The Internal Consistency and Historical Reliability of the Biblical Genealogies.” Vetus testamentum 40, no. 2 (April 1990): 189.
3 Ibid., 190.