How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?by Garry D. Pifer
Have you, like me, assumed the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years? After all, the Scripture seems to clearly say that. Notice Exodus 12 verses 40 and 41.
“ Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, [was] four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.”
Some translations state dogmatically that the children of Israel were in Egypt 430 years. The Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures, says “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years;...”
So at first reading it sure seems to say they were there for 430 years. But, to make the situation seem even more confusing, notice what Abram was told in Genesis 15:13.
“And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land [that is] not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;”
Can we understand all of this? How long were the Israelites actually in Egypt? Was it 400 years, 430 years or possibly a different number of years? And, what does God mean when He says that “even the selfsame day it came to pass?” I believe this study will reveal some very interesting and important understanding.
There are a few other verses that contain vital information that will enable us to understand. One of those is Galatians 3:17. This verse states, “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The statement made here is somewhat clearer in the Bible in Basic English translation. It states, “Now this I say: The law, which came four hundred and thirty years after, does not put an end to the agreement made before by God, so as to make the undertaking without effect.” This verse tells us the law, the 10 Commandments that were given at Mt. Sinai just a few short weeks after the departure from Egypt, was “four hundred and thirty years after” the making of the promise. That promise, as shown in verse 18, was the one made first with Abraham and reconfirmed with him, his son and his grandson.
Galatians 3:18 For if the inheritance [be] of the law, [it is] no more of promise: but God gave [it] to Abraham by promise.
We find that promise that God made with Abraham recorded in Genesis chapter 12 and verses 1-3. By putting some information together that the Bible gives us we can determine when the Israelites went into Egypt and how long they were there. The first bit of information is here in Genesis 12. In verse 4 we are told that Abram (later changed to Abraham) was 75 years old when this covenant was made. 25 years later, when Abraham was 100 years old, Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Isaac was 60 years old when Esau and Jacob were born (Genesis 25:26). In Genesis 47:8-9 we are told that Jacob was 130 years old when he and the rest of the seventy souls (Gen. 46:27) came into Egypt and began their stay in that land. All we have to do is add the figures together. 25, from the covenant to the birth of Isaac plus 60 to the birth of Jacob and 130 more until Jacob entered into Egypt, a total of 215 years. Subtracting 215 from 430 we find that the time in Egypt was another 215 years.
But, what about the verse we read in Genesis 15 mentioning 400 years? How is that reckoned? Notice that verse again. “And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” We find another account of this over in the New Testament, Acts 7:6. It states, “And God spake on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years.” (Emphasis mine.) Did you catch what these verses said? Both verses very specifically indicate the four hundred years is to be regarding “thy seed” or “his seed.” We know from our study of Scripture that the son, the seed, that the promises were to come through was Isaac. As previously mentioned Isaac was born 25 years after the giving of the promise to Abram, but did anything of import happen 30 years afterwards? (430 minus 30 equals 400.) I believe we can demonstrate that something very important happened.
As we just read in chapter 21 of Genesis Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old. We are told in verse 8 that “the child grew, and was weaned.” We don’t know the age but it was common for a child to be weaned at or near two years of age. Following the story through we find that Ishmael and his mother are sent away. We read of a covenant or an agreement that Abraham makes with Abimelech and Abraham’s planting trees in Beersheba. When we come to chapter 22 we read of one of the most important events recorded in Scripture, the sacrifice of Isaac. As we will see as we study this account there is the most wonderful symbolism found here. And, I submit that it was this event that the four hundred years is reckoned from, when Isaac was five years old.
Before we go through this let us go back to Exodus 12 and verse 41. It is stated in this verse that the event took place “even the selfsame day.” Some other renderings make it even clearer. The Bible in Basic English and the Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures both have it “to the very day.” Do you understand what is being said? The covenant with Abraham occurred on the very same day, the 14th day of the first month at even. And, as we will see, the sacrifice of Isaac also was at the time of the later to be commanded Passover sacrifice. It also appears that it was in the springtime when Jacob and his family entered Egypt to live there. Undoubtedly this event occurred on “the same day.” (See Gen. 45:6)
Let us go through the story of Isaac being offered and notice the powerful symbolism contained in it. Genesis 22:2 God instructs Abraham to take his son, “thine only son Isaac.” The word “son” is not in the original but is definitely implied. In type Abraham here represents God the Father. In all of Scripture we do not find another individual that pictured or was a type of The Father. The name, Abraham, means “father of a multitude.” Abraham is call the “father of many nations”(Gen. 17:4; Rom. 4:17-18) and the “father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). God, The Father , would later offer “His only Son.” Verse 2 further states, “whom thou lovest.” Again it was just as The Father loved His Son but was willing to give Him as a sacrifice. Abraham is told to “get thee into the land of Moriah.” The land of Moriah is exactly where Jerusalem was to be built later. Some commentators indicate this was the very spot upon which Solomon built the Temple. I personally believe the place where Isaac was to be sacrificed was very likely the exact spot where Jesus Christ died. The day Isaac was “selected” to be the sacrifice I believe was the 10th day of the first month. That was the day the Passover lamb was to be selected (Ex. 12:3) and the same day Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem and was “selected” by the Father (see John 12:28).
Verse 3 tells us that Abraham rose up early in the morning of the following day (this would have been the 11th) and with Isaac and two young men they began their journey to the place God had told him. In verse 4 we are told that “then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.” The third day would have been the 13th. The place was yet “afar off.” Leaving the young men, verse 5, he and Isaac, called here the lad, began to go on “yonder.” The Hebrew word translated “lad” here means a boy or a youth, and is translated “child” 44 times. I believe Isaac at five years of age would accurately be described as a “lad” or a “child.”
One commentator tries to show Isaac to be the same age as Christ when He was killed. Josephus states that Isaac was twenty five years old at this time but does not indicate how he arrives at this figure. I feel a young boy would picture the attitude and character of Jesus Christ, pure, without blemish, without guile as 1 Pet. 2:22 says. Also, it is as Christ Himself said, that we all must become as little children.
In verse 6 we are told that the wood for the burnt offering was laid upon Isaac his son. Isn’t it fitting that later the Father’s Son would be compelled to carried the wooden beam that would be used in His crucifixion, His fiery trial? Isaac asks Abraham where the lamb for the offering was (verse 7) and Abraham says that “God will provide himself a lamb.” As we know, God the Father did supply Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, for the offering and sacrifice on behalf of all of mankind.
In verse 9 we are told they came to the place which God had told Abraham of. After arriving there Abraham built an altar and prepared everything. I submit that as God does everything on an exact timetable, at “His appointed times” this would now have been the late afternoon of the 14th.
We are familiar with the story of how God stopped Abraham from slaying his son at the last moment. In verse 13 it states that Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw a ram caught in a thicket. This ram, a male lamb, was offered “in the stead” of Isaac. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was offered “in the stead” of each and everyone of us.
In verses 17 and 18 God reiterated the promise He had made with Abraham.
Genesis 22:17-18 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which [is] upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Notice that God specifically states three times that the blessings were to be through “thy seed.” Reflect again on God’s words in Gen. 15:13. The prophecy was specifically concerning “thy seed,” being a stranger, serving and being afflicted in a strange land for four hundred years. I believe firmly that the four hundred years are counted from this event, which also occurred on that “very day.”
Returning to Exodus 12 let us note verse 42. We often read this verse and when it states that it was “a night to be much observed” we think of great celebration. The Hebrew gives the meaning to be “a night of watching.” And, though the Israelites were watching, I submit that the watching, the vigil of this night was God’s. Notice how this is rendered in the Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures.
Exodus 12:42 That was for the LORD a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the LORD’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.
As we mentioned earlier, God does things on schedule at His appointed times. He had promised to take the descendants of Abraham from the land in which they would be enslaved 430 years after His promise to Abraham. And, we have seen that He was doing it EXACTLY to the very day. God had been very definitely watching and vigilantly working all events out so that it happened on His timetable.
God spoke to Moses from the “burning bush.” He said that He had seen the affliction of His people and “I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians...” (Ex. 3:8) He hadn’t forgotten them and everything was on schedule per the time God had prophesied. He had prepared Moses for the job. He had worked it out so that Moses would have the training necessary for the job, acquired in the palace of Egypt. He had now spent 40 years in the very area the Israelites would be spending the next several years in. Genesis 3:1 tells us that Moses kept the flocks of his father in law, Jethro, in “the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.” Horeb and Sinai are used almost interchangeably, although there is some discussion as to whether Horeb may have been the name of the mountain range and Sinai the specific mount. Nevertheless, it was in this very area that Moses had spent time with the flocks and had become very familiar with the territory.
In addition to “bringing Israel out of Egypt” God also was committed to fulfill His promise to Abraham to judge “that nation, whom they shall serve,” (Gen. 15:14). Also, He had promised that after He had done that, the people would “come out with great substance.” (Same verse.) When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush He repeated this promise, that the people would be given favor in the sight of the Egyptians and they would “not go empty.” (Ex. 3:21) Of course this was right after telling Moses that Pharoah would not let the people go “without being forced.” (Ex. 3:19 Bible in Basic English)
You can review the many times God “hardened” Pharoah’s heart, of the many miracles, wonders and plagues God sent. And, the timing was perfect! It all came down to “the selfsame day.” (Ex. 12:41) What a marvelous and wonderful God who was continually vigilant and observing His people, who was working out ALL the many events that took place over 430 years. A magnificent God who had everything culminate on the exact day the 430 years, the 400 years and the 215 years were up.
I recently came across some additional information regarding the time the Israelites were in Egypt. The following is from the Adam Clarke Commentary.
Here is a section from his commentary on Galatians 3:17.
"How we arrive at the sum of 430 years may be seen in the note on Ex 12:40. Dr. Whitby also gives a satisfactory view of the matter. "The apostle refers to the promise made, Ge 12:3, since from that only are the 430 years to be computed, for then Abraham was 75 years old, Ge 12:4; from thence to the birth of Isaac, which happened when Abraham was 100 years old, (Ge 21:5,) 25 years; from his birth to the birth of Jacob, 60 years, for Isaac was 60 years old when Rebecca bare him, Ge 25:26. From Jacob's birth to the descent into Egypt, 130 years, as he said to Pharaoh, Ge 47:9. The abode of him and his posterity in Egypt was 215 years; so that, with their sojourning in Canaan, was 430 years;" the sum given here, and in Ex 12:40, where see the notes." (Clarke)
And, here is the commentary on Exodus 12:40.
"Ex 12:40: Verse 40. Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, &c.] The statement in this verse is allowed on all hands to be extremely difficult, and therefore the passage stands in especial need of illustration. 'That the descendants of Israel did not dwell 430 years in Egypt,' says Dr. Kennicott, 'may be easily proved, and has often been demonstrated. Some therefore imagine that by Egypt here both it and Canaan are to be understood. But this greater latitude of place will not solve the difficulty, since the Israelites, including Israel their father, did not sojourn 430 years in both countries previous to their departure from Egypt. Others, sensible of the still remaining deficiency, would not only have Egypt in the text to signify it and Canaan, but by a figure more comprehensive would have the children of Israel to mean Israel's children, and Israel their father, and Isaac the father of Israel, and part of the life of Abraham, the father of Isaac.'
'Thus indeed,' says Dr. Kennicott, 'we arrive at the exact sum, and by this method of reckoning we might arrive at any thing but truth, which we may presume was never thus conveyed by an inspired writer.' But can the difficulty be removed without having recourse to such absurd shifts? Certainly it can. The Samaritan Pentateuch, in all its manuscripts and printed copies, reads the place thus:-
Umoshab beney Yishrael veabotham asher yashebu baarets Cenaan, ubaarets mitsraim sheloshim shanah vearba meoth shanah.
'Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, and of their fathers, which they sojourned in the land of Canaan and in the land of Egypt, was 430 years.' This same sum is given by St. Paul, Ga 3:17, who reckons from the promise made to Abraham, when God commanded him to go to Canaan, to the giving of the law, which soon followed the departure from Egypt; and this chronology of the apostle is concordant with the Samaritan Pentateuch, which, by preserving the two passages, they and their fathers, and in the land of Canaan, which are lost out of the present copies of the Hebrew text, has rescued this passage from all obscurity and contradiction. It may be necessary to observe that the Alexandrian copy of the Septuagint has the same reading as that in the Samaritan. The Samaritan Pentateuch is allowed by many learned men to exhibit the most correct copy of the five books of Moses; and the Alexandrian copy of the Septuagint must also be allowed to be one of the most authentic as well as most ancient copies of this version which we possess. As to St. Paul, no man will dispute the authenticity of his statement; and thus in the mouth of these three most respectable witnesses the whole account is indubitably established. That these three witnesses have the truth, the chronology itself proves: for from Abraham's entry into Canaan to the birth of Isaac was 25 years, Ge 12:4; 17:1-21; Isaac was 60 years old at the birth of Jacob, Ge 25:26; and Jacob was 130 at his going down into Egypt, Ge 47:9; which three sums make 215 years. And then Jacob and his children having continued in Egypt 215 years more, the whole sum of 430 years is regularly completed. See Kennicott's Dissertation on the Hebrew Text." (Clarke)
I had never heard of the Samaritan Pentateuch that the Adam Clarke Commentary referred to so did a bit of a search. The following from the Easton Bible Dictionary is interesting.
"Samaritan Pentateuch - On the return from the Exile, the Jews refused the Samaritan participation with them in the worship at Jerusalem, and the latter separated from all fellowship with them, and built a temple for themselves on Mount Gerizim. This temple was razed to the ground more than one hundred years B.C. Then a system of worship was instituted similar to that of the temple at Jerusalem. It was founded on the Law, copies of which had been multiplied in Israel as well as in Judah. Thus the Pentateuch was preserved among the Samaritans, although they never called it by this name, but always "the Law," which they read as one book. The division into five books, as we now have it, however, was adopted by the Samaritans, as it was by the Jews, in all their priests' copies of 'the Law,' for the sake of convenience. This was the only portion of the Old Testament which was accepted by the Samaritans as of divine authority.
"The form of the letters in the manuscript copies of the Samaritan Pentateuch is different from that of the Hebrew copies, and is probably the same as that which was in general use before the Captivity. There are other peculiarities in the writing which need not here be specified.
"There are important differences between the Hebrew and the Samaritan copies of the Pentateuch in the readings of many sentences. In about two thousand instances in which the Samaritan and the Jewish texts differ, the LXX. agrees with the former. The New Testament also, when quoting from the Old Testament, agrees as a rule with the Samaritan text, where that differs from the Jewish. Thus Ex. 12:40 in the Samaritan reads, "Now the sojourning of the children of Israel and of their fathers which they had dwelt in the land of Canaan and in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years" (comp. Gal. 3:17). It may be noted that the LXX. has the same reading of this text."