How Long Was the Egyptian Bondage?

            Occasionally someone will insist that the Bible is not inspired by God and to prove their point they will state there are contradictions in the Bible. One of these apparent contradictions involves the duration of the Israelites' bondage in Egypt. There are five verses which state the length of this bondage and they appear to give four different durations. The verses involved are Genesis 15:13-14, Exodus 12:40-41, Acts 7:6, Acts 13:17-19, and Galatians 3:17.

            To better understand what each author is discussing, we will place the information from these verses in a chart that notes the duration, the start point from which the time is measured, and the ending point to which the time is measured.


  Starting Event Period Ending Event
Genesis 15:13-14 Not mentioned Enslaved and oppressed 400 years They will come out with many possessions
Exodus 12:40-41 Entered Egypt Lived in Egypt 430 years to the very day Went out from the land of Egypt
Acts 7:6 Not mentioned Enslaved and oppressed 400 years Not mentioned
Acts 13:17-19 Their stay in Egypt about 450 years Conquest of Canaan
Galatians 3:17 Covenant ratified by God 430 years later The giving of the Law


            Notice that Exodus 12:40-41 is very precise in its statement concerning the time Israel lived in the land of Egypt. It was 430 years to the very day. This directly conflicts with many charts which mark the Egyptian captivity as being 215 years long.

            Another thing which we notice is that the time frames each passage is measuring are not the same. The Israelites entered Egypt when Joseph ruled Egypt as free men. It was only later that the Israelites were placed under bondage (Exodus 1:8). Therefore, the period of bondage was less than the period the Israelites lived in the land of Egypt. Using these verses, we see that the Israelites remained free for the first 30 years in Egypt. The slavery started 13 years after Jacob died (Genesis 47:28).

            If Acts 13:17-19 starts with the bondage of Israel, then the 450 years can be divided up into 400 years of slavery, 1 year at Mount Sinai, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and about 9 years conquering Canaan. Even if we are off by a year or two, it is still approximately 450 years.

            The verse that gives the greatest difficulty is Paul's statement in Galatians 3:17. At first it appears that Paul measures the period from the covenant with Abraham to the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai as 430 years. However, this directly conflicts with Exodus 12:40-41, which measures a smaller time period as being 430 years.

            However, read Galatians 3:17 carefully and you will see the starting point was not the giving of the covenant, but the ratification of the covenant. Even if we tried to use the giving of the covenant as the starting point, we would run into some difficulty. Abraham was given the covenant on four separate occasions: The first occurred when Abram was 75 (Genesis 12), the second occurred when Abram was 89 (Genesis 15), the third occurred when Abraham was 99 (Genesis 17), and the final occurred at an unspecified age (Genesis 22:16-18).

            If we look at the ratification of the covenant made with Abraham, we find that it, too, occurred a number of times. God ratified (or reaffirmed) the covenant with Isaac in Genesis 26:24. God also ratified the covenant with Jacob three times: Genesis 28:14, Genesis 25:10-12, and Genesis 46:2-4. The last ratification occurred just as Jacob was about to enter the land of Egypt with his family. If we determine that Paul was referring to the last ratification with Jacob, the time period of 430 years is consistent with the other passages.

            What this should teach us is that we need to read passages for what they say and not what we assume they meant. The apparent contradiction only arises when a person assumes the ratification of Abraham's covenant occurred during the life of Abraham. Only when we understand that a covenant may be reaffirm many times before its fulfillment does the answer show itself.