“was 430 years.” Many people read this verse and think that the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt, but this is not the case. Furthermore, they did not spend 400 years as slaves in Egypt, even though many people think Genesis 15:13 says that. The total length of time from the year when God called Abraham out of Haran until the year of the Exodus when God made the “Old Covenant” with Israel, was 430 years. This “hard date” is set in Galatians 3:16-17 which says there are 430 years from the promise to Abraham until the Law, which was given the year of the Exodus from Egypt. In light of that, there is no way Israel spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt, as many people believe. The 430-year period from the promise God made to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3) until the Exodus included Abraham’s life until Isaac was born, Isaac’s life until Jacob was born, Jacob’s life until Joseph was born, Joseph’s 110-year life; and the slavery in Egypt. As we will see, the slavery lasted no longer than 139 years.
The chronology of the Old Testament has been confused by many things. For one thing, too many scholars rely on the accepted Egyptian chronology to guide them in understanding biblical chronology despite the fact there is very good evidence that the accepted Egyptian dates are wrong.a Also, the way some of the verses in the Hebrew text are written, it is easy to get the wrong impression from them unless one takes the time to study the specifics of the chronology of the Old Testament to see how they fit with the scope of Scripture. Genesis 15:13 and Exodus 12:40 are some of the verses that can be confusing.
Genesis 15:13 and Acts 7:6 say that the length of time between Abraham’s “seed” and the Exodus is 400 years, and this supports the 430-year number as being the time between God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-4) until the Exodus. It is good that God repeats the number 400 a couple of times because at first glance it seems wrong. If the total time between God’s promise to Abraham and the Exodus was 430 years, and the time between Abraham’s “seed” and the Exodus was 400 years, then the time between the promise and the “seed” is 30 years. But God made the promise to Abraham when he was 75 (Gen. 12:4), but Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 (Gen. 21:1-5), which is only 25 years, not 30. How do we get the extra five years?
In this case, the counting of the years of the “seed” of Abraham that would inherit the promise does not start with the birth of Isaac, but the weaning of Isaac. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and until Isaac was weaned, Ishmael, the elder of the two, seemed to be legitimately in line to inherit the promise. But at the weaning feast of Isaac, God made it clear that Ishmael was to be sent away and Isaac was established as the real “seed” of Abraham (Gen. 21:8-13). Thus the counting of the “seed” of Abraham, i.e., when Isaac was established as “the seed,” starts at Isaac’s weaning feast when God told Abraham, “it is through Isaac that your seed will be called” (Gen. 21:12).
Admittedly, there is no verse that gives Isaac’s age as five years old when he was weaned and Abraham put on the weaning feast. But God expects us to use wisdom and knowledge in interpreting Scripture, and there are several places in the chronology of the Old Testament where God gives us outside parameters and expects us to fill in some of the details from the scope of Scripture. This is one of those cases, and a number of competent biblical scholars have noted that Isaac would have been five when God told Abraham that he was the heir.b
In summary: God appeared to Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he dwelt in Haran and told him to go “into the land which I shall show thee,” but there is no record that God gave Abraham a promise at that time (Gen. 11:31; Neh. 9:7; Acts 7:2-3). When Abraham was 75 and living in Haran, God made a promise to him that he would inherit the land (Gen. 12:2-3), and Abraham got up and went into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land (Gen. 12:4-5). Isaac was weaned 30 years after God promised the land to Abraham, and at the weaning feast, God told Abraham that his seed would be called in Isaac. Thus there are 400 years from the “seed” to the Exodus (Gen. 15:13; Acts 7:6). So we see that the length of time between the promise to Abraham and the Exodus was 430 years (Exod. 12:40; Gal. 3:16-17). Also, the length of time between Abraham’s seed—the weaning of Isaac—and the Exodus was 400 years (Acts 7:6; Gen. 15:13).
Summary of the Chronology of the 430 Years from the Promise to the Law
In the calculations above, we see the actual chronology of the time between God’s promise to Abraham and the Exodus and the giving of the Law to Moses. To fully understand Exodus 12:40, it is imperative that we translate it accurately. The KJV translates it as: “Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.” To properly interpret the verse, we must understand that the phrase, “who dwelt in Egypt,” does not describe the 430-year period, but rather is a description of the children of Israel—they are the ones who lived in Egypt.
Exodus 12:40 should not be interpreted to mean that the children of Israel spent 430 years in Egypt. Instead, it can be translated as: “Now the time of the sojourn of the children of Israel (who lived in Egypt) was 430 years.” Read that way, it is the “sojourn” of the children of Israel that was 430 years; it was not Israel’s time in Egypt that was 430 years. The sojourn of the children of Israel started when God promised Abraham the land and so he went into it (Gen. 12:1-4). God stopped counting the years of the sojourn at the Exodus, at which time He began to count the years of another great period of Israel’s history, the 480 years from the Exodus until Solomon started building the Temple (1 Kings 6:1).
Genesis 15:13 should be read and understood in the same basic way as Exodus 12:40 in that there is a parenthesis in the verse. Genesis 15:13 (REV): “And he said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your seed will live as foreigners in a land that is not theirs (and will serve them and they will afflict them) 400 years.” As with Exodus 12:40, this verse is not, indeed, cannot be, saying that Israel will be enslaved for 400 years. It is saying the people of Israel will live in a land that is not theirs for 400 years, and at some time during that period, they will serve and be enslaved. And that is what happened. God promised Abraham and his descendants the land, and then Abraham traveled there. But he did not get to take possession of it, and neither did his descendants. They lived as “foreigners” there and in Egypt until after the Exodus when Joshua conquered the land.
As they are commonly (but mistakenly!) understood to read, Genesis 15:13 contradicts Exodus 12:40. That is because if Israel lived in Egypt for 430 years as Exodus 12:40 seems to say in most versions, but they were enslaved for 400 years as Genesis 15:13 seems to say in most versions, then the period of slavery would be too long and Genesis 15:13 and Exodus 12:40 would contradict each other. Here is why: if the people of Israel lived in Egypt for 430 years (Exod. 12:40), and were enslaved for 400 years (Gen. 15:13), that leaves only 30 years when the Israelites were not slaves. But Joseph was 30 when he was taken before Pharaoh and given rule over Egypt (Gen. 41:46), and then there were seven years of plenty and two years of famine when Jacob and the people of Israel came into Egypt; Joseph would have been 39 (Gen. 45:6). Then Joseph’s family lived with him in Egypt until he died at 110 (Gen. 50:26). But that means they lived with Joseph for 71 years before he died (110 - 39 = 71), so even if the slavery started that very year, the longest the slavery could have been was 359 years (430 - 71 = 359). But we know it took some time after Joseph died for Israel to be enslaved. If it took only ten years, that would leave only 349 years of slavery. But the common reading of Genesis 15:13 is that the slavery was 400 years—so the traditional reading of Genesis 15:13 does not even fit with the traditional reading of Exodus 12:40.