Determining the correct amount of time that the Israelites were in Egypt takes some biblical detective work. It requires looking at ALL the relevant Scriptures before arriving at a conclusion. Before we get to the specific matter at hand, we need to establish a time line based on the chronology given in the Bible:
|Adam's creation to Seth's birth||130 years||Gen. 5:3||130 AM|
|Seth's birth to Enosh's birth||105 years||Gen. 5:6||235 AM|
|Enosh's birth to Cainan's birth||90 years||Gen. 5:9||325 AM|
|Cainan's birth to Mahalaleel's birth||70 years||Gen. 5:12||395 AM|
|Mahalaleel's birth to Jared's birth||65 years||Gen. 5:15||460 AM|
|Jared's birth to Enoch's birth||162 years||Gen. 5:18||622 AM|
|Enoch's birth to Methuselah's birth||65 years||Gen. 5:21||687 AM|
|Methuselah's birth to Lamech's birth||187 years||Gen. 5:25||874 AM|
|Lamech's birth to Noah's birth||182 years||Gen. 5:28-29||1056 AM|
|Noah's birth to the Flood||600 years||Gen. 7:6||1656 AM|
|Flood to Arphaxad's birth||2 years||Gen. 11:10||1658 AM|
|Arphaxad's birth to Salah's birth||35 years||Gen. 11:12||1693 AM|
|Salah's birth to Eber's birth||30 years||Gen. 11:14||1723 AM|
|Eber's birth to Peleg's birth||34 years||Gen. 11:16||1757 AM|
|Peleg's birth to Reu's birth||30 years||Gen. 11:18||1787 AM|
|Reu's birth to Serug's birth||32 years||Gen. 11:20||1819 AM|
|Serug's birth to Nahor's birth||30 years||Gen. 11:22||1849 AM|
|Nahor's birth to Terah's birth||29 years||Gen. 11:24||1878 AM|
|Terah's birth to Abram's birth||70 years||Gen. 11:26||1948 AM|
|Abram's birth to Isaac's birth||100 years||Gen. 21:5||2048 AM|
AM = Anno Mundi - Year of the Earth (from creation)
As you can see from the chart above, Abram was born in the year 1948 AM (not coincidentally, the modern nation of Israel, composed of Abraham's descendants, was reborn in the year 1948 AD).
GALATIANS 3:16 Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your Seed," who is Christ. 17 And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. (NKJV)
In Galatians 3:17, Paul tells us that from the establishment of God's covenant with Abraham until the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, 430 years elapsed. Genesis 12:1-3 shows us this initial covenant:
GENESIS 12:1 Now the LORD had said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. 2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4 So Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. (NKJV)
When was this covenant established? Most would answer that it was established when Abram was 75 years old. This would be an incorrect deduction, however. Elsewhere the Scriptures show that God brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees BEFORE he brought him out of Haran (Gen. 11:31; 15:7; Neh. 9:7).
Stephen confirms this fact in his discourse before the Sanhedrin:
ACTS 7:2 And he said, "Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, BEFORE he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.'" (NKJV)
So how do we determine how long Abram was in Haran after God made the covenant with him? Genesis 15 gives us the answer:
GENESIS 15:13 Then He said to Abram: "Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. 14 And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age." (NKJV)
According to the cantillation signs placed in the Hebrew text of Genesis 15:13 by the scribes, the phrase "400 years" refers back to the words, "your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs." The years of Abraham's offspring being strangers in a strange land BEGAN with the birth of Isaac (2048 AM), NOT with the Egyptian enslavement. Therefore the text ought to be understood as follows: "Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs . . . 400 years." Adding 400 years to the date of Isaac's birth brings us to 2448 AM, which is the year of the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai.
The 30-year difference in the number of years mentioned by Paul in Galatians 3:17 and the number of years specified to Abram by God is due to two different starting points for the same ending point. The first covenant (Gen. 12:1-3) was instituted 430 years before the Law was given on Mount Sinai, while Genesis 15:13 refers to 400 years between the birth of Abraham's chosen offspring, Isaac, and the Exodus from Egypt. This means that God made the first covenant with Abram in 2018 AM, 30 years before Isaac was born. Therefore, we can deduce that Abram left Ur at the age of 70, spent 5 years in Haran, and then left Haran in 2023 AM at the age of 75, as Genesis 12:4 tells us. The covenant of the pieces (Gen. 15) was probably made in the year 2033 AM, just before the birth of Ishmael in 2034 AM.
However, because of a statement made by Stephen, many think that Abram didn't leave Haran until after his father died:
ACTS 7:4 "Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell." (NKJV)
Based on the biblical chronology shown above, we know that Terah was born in 1878 AM. Genesis 11:32 tells us that Terah lived 205 years. So simple math establishes that Terah didn't physically die until 2083 AM (35 years AFTER the birth of Isaac). There is no way to reconcile Stephen's statement if we apply it to Terah's physical death. Therefore, unless we assume (incorrectly) that Stephen was mistaken, we have to realize that he was referring to Terah's spiritual death, not his physical death.
Many times the Scriptures speak of the living as being dead because of sin (Rom. 6:13; Col. 2:13; Eph. 2:1, 5; I Tim. 5:6; I John 3:14; I Pet. 4:6; Rev. 3:1). We know that Terah worshiped other gods (Jos. 24:2). Clearly Stephen was referring to Terah's spiritual state, not his physical state, when he mentioned his death.
Exodus 12:40-41 tells us the very day that God first made His covenant with Abram:
EXODUS 12:40 Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. 41 And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years -- ON THAT VERY SAME DAY -- it came to pass that all the armies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt. (NKJV)
The Bible tells us that the Israelites started their trek out of Egypt on the 15th of the month of Abib (Num. 33:3). Therefore, we know that 430 years earlier, on 15 Abib (or Nisan), God first told Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees and promised to bless him if he did.
Some argue that Exodus 12:40-41 shows conclusively that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 430 years. However, the focus of these verses is the SOJOURN of the children of Israel. Literally, this sojourn began when Abraham left Ur at the age of 70.
It is easy to prove from the Bible itself that the period of time that the Israelites dwelt in Egypt was not 400 or 430 years:
GENESIS 46:2 Then God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am." 3 So He said, "I am God, the God of your father; do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. 4 I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will put his hand on your eyes." 5 Then Jacob arose from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried their father Jacob, their little ones, and their wives, in the carts which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. 6 So they took their livestock and their goods, which they had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to Egypt, Jacob and all his descendants with him. 7 His sons and his sons' sons, his daughters and his sons' daughters, and all his descendants he brought with him to Egypt. 8 Now these were the names of the children of Israel, Jacob and his sons, who went to Egypt: Reuben was Jacob's firstborn. . . . 11 The sons of Levi were Gershon, KOHATH, and Merari. (NKJV)
We see that when Jacob and his descendants left Canaan to move to Egypt, his son Levi and his grandson Kohath were among those who made the journey. After arriving in Egypt, Kohath had a son named Amram (Exo. 6:18). In turn, Amram had a son named Moses (Exo. 6:20). Moses was 80 years old when the Exodus took place (Exo. 7:7).
To find the MAXIMUM possible time between the Israelites move to Egypt and the Exodus, we will make some assumptions. We are told that Kohath lived to be 133 years old (Exo. 6:18), and Amram lived to be 137 years old (Exo. 6:20). Let's assume that Kohath had just been born when Jacob and Levi his father moved to Egypt. We will also assume that Amram had Moses in the last year of his life. To these two life spans, we will add Moses' age at the Exodus (80):
Kohath lived 133 years (Exo. 6:18)
Amram lived 137 years (Exo. 6:20)
Age of Moses at the Exodus was 80 years (Exo. 7:7)
TOTAL – 133 + 137 + 80 = 350
The maximum possible time for the sojourn is only 350 years. We see that the biblical chronology does not allow for 430 or 400 years in Egypt. So what is the correct number of years in Egypt? To find this out, we need to go back to the year of Isaac's birth and work our way forward.
We've already determined that it was 400 years from the time of Isaac's birth until the Exodus (2048 AM + 400 = 2448 AM). Isaac was 60 when he had Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:26), which means Jacob was born in 2108 AM. Jacob was 130 years old when he moved his family to Egypt (Gen. 47:28), which indicates that this move occurred in 2238 AM. The time period between 2238 AM and 2448 AM is 210 years. So it was 210 years from the time Jacob moved his family to Egypt until the Exodus took place.
However, it was AFTER the children of Israel had multiplied and filled the land of Egypt, and a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph had arisen, that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. We do not know for sure how long the enslavement lasted. But since Joseph died in 2309 AM (Gen. 50:22), it was probably a generation or two after this that the slavery began. My best guess is that they were enslaved approximately 100 years, give or take a decade or two.
For those of you who haven't studied Jewish sources, the time period of 210 years has long been known and proclaimed by the Jewish sages. But for many reasons, Christian scholars tend to disdain and dismiss Jewish understanding of the Scriptures. By doing so, they (and we) are missing out on some deeper insights into God's word. This is not to say that the Jews are right in all their beliefs and teachings. We are told to prove ALL things, but to only hold fast to that which is GOOD (I The. 5:21).
This question (and the answers most often given) illustrates a weakness of most Christians. I myself have been guilty of this same deficiency many times. We tend not to look deeply enough into the Scriptures to find the full answer. "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter" (Pro. 25:2).
This is a case where all the necessary information to arrive at the correct answer is available in the Bible, but most believers don't gather it all and analyze it BEFORE coming to a conclusion. This type of presentation of information is one of the tests God built into the Scriptures to frustrate those who don't truly want to obey Him. God tells us how we must approach our study of the Scriptures: "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little" (Isa. 28:10, 13).
Most Christians do not use this method to study. Instead, they proof text and play "trump the verse." Proof texting is finding a Scripture that seems to agree with one's point of view and then using that Scripture to override any apparently contradictory Scriptures. Instead of trying to harmonize ALL the Scriptures on a particular topic, most Christians support those Scriptures that fit their particular beliefs and then ignore or overturn others that don't fit their doctrines. This is one of the main reasons we see so many denominations within Christianity. Is Christ divided (I Cor. 1:13)? Unfortunately, in this age of itching ears (II Tim. 4:3), the answer is "yes."
Bryan T. Huie
May 3, 2002