How Long Was the Egptian Bondage?

How Long Was the Egyptian Bondage?

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton


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.

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 wondering 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 ratification of the covenant. Even if we used 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.

There is one more set of verses which need to be addressed. The lineage of Moses is spelled out in several places (Exodus 6:16-20; Numbers 3:17-30; 26:57-59; I Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6-13). The passage is Exodus 6 is particularly interesting as it gives the ages of each father. Levi, who lived 137 years, had Kohath. Kohath, who lived 133 years, had Amram. Amram married Jochebed, a daughter of Levi born after the Israelites entered Egypt. Amram and Jochebed had Aaron and Moses. Amram lived 137 years. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt at the age of 80 (Exodus 7:7). We also know that Kohath was born prior to Israel's entrance into Egypt (Genesis 46:11). We don't know when each son was born in relation to his father's age, but even if we assume that Kohath was born the year they entered Egypt (not likely) and that both Amram and Moses were born on the year of their father's death (again not likely), the maximum length of the time in Egypt would be 350 years. At least 80 years, and likely much more than this, are missing in this genealogy.

The case for a conflict appears to be quite good, but there are several difficulties with using Moses' lineage to establish a maximum duration for the Egyptian bondage.

First, the Hebrew word for "son" is not used as tightly as it is in English. Any male descendant of an ancestor may be called a son. Hence, Jesus is referred to as the son of both Abraham and David (Matthew 1:1). Several of the kings of Judah refer to David as their father even though they are several generations away from David (I Kings 15:3, 11; 22:50). The giving of the age of each parent in Moses' lineage does not strengthen the case that it is a complete lineage. Since the age of the father is not given for when the son was born, we cannot say with absolute certainty that some generations are not missing.

There are several examples of skipped generations in the Bible. For Ruth 4:18-22 gives this lineage for Nahshon, who happens to be the brother of Elisheba, Aaron's wife (Exodus 6:23):

Judah - Perez - Hezron - Ram - Amminadab - Nahshon

However, Luke 3:32-33 gives the lineage as:

Judah - Perez - Hezron - Ram - Admin - Amminadab - Nahshon

Perhaps one could argue that Admin was accidently dropped from Ruth's account, but in reality both lineages are correct in the strictest sense of the word. A grandson could still be considered a son.

A more interesting case involves a lineage in Levi's family. I Chronicles 6:16-28 gives this lineage:

Levi - Kohath - Amminadab - Korah - Assir - Elkanah - Zophai - Nahath - Eliab - Jeroham - Elkanah - Samuel - Joel

Just a few verses later in I Chronicles 6:33-38 gives the ancestry of Heman, a son of Joel. Laying it out in the same order, it gives the lineage as:

Levi - Kohath - Izhar - Korah - Ebiasaph - Assir - Tahath - Zephaniah - Azariah - Joel - Elkanah - Amasai - Mahath - Elkanah - Zuph - Toah - Eliel - Jeroham - Elkanah - Samuel - Joel

The highlighted names are missing in the first list. I am assuming that Zuph, Toah, and Eliel correspond to Zophai, Nahath, and Eliab. The spellings of these names are somewhat similar. Some believe that Amminadab and Izhar are the same person, though you cannot make an argument that it was a variation in spelling. It is possible that Amminadab was the son of Izhar and the father of Korah. Notice that a generation was skipped in the first list between Korah and Assir. Then seven generations were skipped between Assir and Elkanah.

This does not prove that generations were skipped in the lineage of Moses, but it does point out the possibility exists in any lineage that is not tightly coupled.

The second disturbing fact is that in Kohath's branch of the family there were 8,600 males age one month or older (Numbers 3:27-28). Later we are told that there are 2,750 men in this branch between the ages of 30 and 50 (Numbers 4:34-36). The problem is that we are told that Kohath had 4 sons, 12 grandsons, and at least 6 great-grandsons. The great-grandsons are Aaron and Moses's children. Since we know the generations Moses and Aaron, it means that Kohath's 10 other grandsons would have to have an average of 860 male descendants in each line. If there were two additional generations, this means would have an average of 29 males per generation! If we could manage to fit three additional generations, we could lower this to an average of 9 males per generation. This is not 9 children per generation, but 9 sons per generation! Once again, the numbers suggest there were additional generations which were not mentioned.

The real problem with using Moses' lineage to set an upper bound on the length of the Egyptian bondage is the fact that one must assume there are no additional generations. You cannot prove the generations are complete and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that additional generations were likely. When we have several clearly worded statements in the Bible stating one period of time, there is no reason to use an unprovable possibility to contradict these statements.

January 1, 2013