How long were the Israelites in Egypt?
Using their own family tree to resolve a debate
Published: 21 September 2021 (GMT+10)
Using their own family tree to resolve a dispute
There is a long-standing and rigorous debate about the length of time the Israelites spent in Egypt. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be afflicted for 400 years. His grandson, Jacob, moved the family to Egypt where they were afflicted. The Bible then gives us some apparently conflicting information. In one place, it seems to say the 430-year clock started ticking when Jacob entered Egypt. In another place, it says it started when God made the promise to Abraham. The difference between Abraham and Jacob amounts to about 215 years. So, they were either in Egypt for 215 or 430 years. Which is it?
This discussion is important for several reasons. First, the Bible is not supposed to contain contradictions. Second, the presence or absence of two extra centuries strongly affects our ability to square biblical and secular history. And third, the question about their time in Egypt is part of the calculation of the age of the universe! There are additional questions about the historical background of their time in Egypt (i.e., who was the pharaoh of Joseph and who was the pharaoh of the Exodus?), but these are outside the scope of this article. If you are interested in those questions, first see the excellent review written by Gary Bates Egyptian chronology and the Bible—framing the issues. Our Tour Egypt booklet contains additional (and fascinating) information on the topic.
At first glance, it seems that God’s promise that the Israelites would be oppressed sojourners in a foreign land started when Jacob entered Egypt. Many Bible commentaries, articles, and sermons have made such claims. Other scholarly sources, however, including the famous “4004 BC” age-of-the-earth calculation of Archbishop James Ussher, have assumed the clock started ticking when God initially made the promise to Abraham.
There are several ways to resolve the issue. First, we need to see how other biblical authors handled the question. Second, we need to examine the internal data and see if the dates and names line up on one side or the other. Being that this is such a weighty matter, and since many smart people have debated about this over many centuries, let us approach the question cautiously. To be honest, we want to stretch biblical history out as far as possible. There are many secular challenges to the biblical timeline, and they only get easier when we have more time. Yet, despite the temptation to lean toward a longer timeframe, we are reminded of the passage in Judges 6. There were too many soldiers with Gideon when they went up to attack Midian. God reduced that number from 32,000 to a mere 300, to attack a host that numbered “like locusts” and like “the sand on the seashore”. The attack was successful. Considering this, perhaps we should not worry about how much time we want and simply let the text speak for itself.
The biblical text
First, consider what God told Abraham:
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13–16)
Abraham was living in the south of Israel. He did not own the land but was only temporarily settled there as he waited for God to show him the land he was promised before he left his homeland (Genesis 12:1). He and his offspring were already living in a land that was not theirs, but they were not being “afflicted”. Yet, some scholars reference the account of Ishmael mocking Isaac (Genesis 21:9) or the Philistine’s stealing Abraham’s water supply (Genesis 21:25) or the time when they chased Isaac away and stopped up his wells (Genesis 26:14–16) as examples of “affliction”. Note that Abraham has already spent some time in Egypt (Genesis 12:10–20).
We know the Israelites were afflicted after they moved to Egypt during Jacob’s lifetime:
And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. (Exodus 1:12b–14)
Yet, they were not afflicted when they first arrived. The affliction did not begin until a pharaoh arose that did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8), and Joseph lived for about 90 years after Jacob arrived (see below). If they had to be afflicted for 400 years, their time in Egypt would have to be at least 490 years long, which goes against what the text specifically says. Thus, it appears they were wandering and experiencing periodic persecution since the time of Abraham. But consider the statement made after they left:
The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:40–41)
This certainly reads like the people were in Egypt for a full 430 years. But note that the word “Israel” specifically designates Jacob and his descendants. Abraham and Isaac were technically not Israelites.
On the other hand, consider the words of Paul in the New Testament:
Now the promises were made to Abraham … the law, which came 430 years afterward … (Galatians 3:16–17)
Paul seems to be saying that the clock started ticking with Abraham, not Jacob. How, then, could the people of “Israel” have lived in Egypt for 430 years?
Exodus 12:40 has given scholars difficulty for centuries, even predating the seeming conflict raised by
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.2 (emphasis added)
Of the three major textual traditions, two (the LXX and SP) more easily allow for a 215-year Sojourn. We are not trying to cast doubt on the way our Bibles, which are based on the Masoretic text, read. It is also quite possible that the other traditions added these phrases to clear up a textual puzzle. All we are trying to say is that this is a difficult passage that is open to several possible interpretations. There is not space here to go into every aspect of textual criticism. If you are new to debates such as this, see How can we be sure we have the Word of God?
Is it 400 or 430?
There is no discrepancy between the “400” year statement (Genesis 15:13; Acts 7:6) and the more specific “430” years (Exodus 12:40; Galatians 3:17). The authors of these passages certainly knew these numbers were there and saw no problem including them both. This could be a matter of numerical rounding (where 430 becomes “400”), or the 400-year clock could have started at a different time than the 430-year clock. For example, the Exodus could have been both 430 years from God’s promise to Abraham and 400 years from the birth of Isaac.
Note that Genesis 15:13 specifically says that Abraham’s offspring (i.e., the not-yet-born Isaac and his descendants) will be afflicted wanderers for 400 years. Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Genesis 21:5). If the promise was made to Abraham 30 years prior to that, there is no conflict. But there are also multiple ‘calls’ of Abraham. First, something propelled Abraham’s father Terah to leave his homeland and go to Canaan. He did not make it very far, dying in Haran (Genesis 11:31). Was this the ‘call’ of Abraham? If so, we cannot easily date it. After this, God called Abraham out of Haran and promised to make of him a great nation. This happened when he was 75 (Genesis 12:1–4). He would have been 105 years old 30 years later, so some commentators say the “400-year” clock started with the weaning of Isaac (at about the age of five), which was also associated with the mocking of Isaac by his older half-brother Ishmael (Genesis 21:9).
God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham in Genesis 12:7. On another visit, He restated both the ‘great nation’ and the ‘land’ promises (13:14–17). In Genesis 15. during a dark dream, God makes the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be sojourners and afflicted for four hundred years. God also says that he would judge the nation they served (true), that they would come out with great possessions (also true, see Exodus 12:35–36), and that they would return to the Canaan (i.e., the Promised Land) in the fourth generation. These other visits by God and the one prophetic dream are not dated. It is still not easy to reconcile the 400- and 430-year clocks, and Isaac has to be weaned while still a child, but if these events are packed into a few short years there is not much of a problem.
How do you get 215 years?
If the Israelites were not in Egypt for 430 years, how long were they there? To answer this, we have to make some quick calculations. If the 430-year clock starts when Abraham is 75, we have the birth of Isaac 25 years later, the birth of Jacob when Isaac is 60 (Genesis 25:26), and the entry of Jacob into Egypt when he is 130 (Genesis 47:9). Thus, it was 25 + 60 + 130 = 215 years from Abraham to Jacob’s entry into Egypt.
If the clock starts later, for instance after the “flaming torch” dream in Genesis 15, we still have a 430-year time between the promise made to Abraham and the giving of the law, but the time in Egypt is lengthened a little. Thus, “215” is not an absolute number, but it is the traditional assumption, so we decided to use it throughout this article.
Only four generations in Egypt?
According to Genesis 15:16, they were supposed to come back in the 4th generation. Was this ‘four generations’ from Abraham or ‘four generations’ after they entered Egypt? Since Abraham was already a wanderer, and since he knew nothing about the family’s future stay in Egypt, how would he have interpreted God’s words? In this context the word “generation” cannot mean “about 25 years” because 25 x 4 does not equal 400. Some people believe there are “missing generations” in the biblical genealogies. How does that fit into the “4th generation” scheme? This can be answered by carefully paying attention to the genealogical data given to us in the Bible.
The biblical data
Anyone who has tried to read through the Bible knows that there are many sections that seem to be nothing but a long list of names. They are hard to pronounce and tedious to read through. Yet, those names are often linked to important events, and we can often better understand a passage when we better understand the background of the people involved in the story. This is definitely true for the time period of the Egyptian Sojourn and the Exodus.
Considering all the information given, we can build a family tree for all the Israelite family lines that go from Canaan, to Egypt, through the Exodus, and back to Canaan after the conquest of Jericho (figure 1). At first glance, this appears to be a real genealogy with no room for missing generations. If we only had the direct line of Moses, there would be more room for arguing. Yet, there are multiple lines described here. They mutually interact and support each other, with no contradictions or difficulties. Anyone who has spent time working on their personal genealogy can appreciate how difficult family records can be. Imagine how hard a time you would have if one of your ancestors decided to skip over people in the family tree. Thus, the biblical genealogy would be incredibly opaque if the people recording the data were skipping over random people. It would not even be easy to do if they were skipping over only specific people, because so many siblings, uncles, nieces, etc., are mentioned.
We still have to figure out what God meant when He said they would return in the ‘fourth generation’. In any population, there will be a tremendous overlap in the generation count. The oldest child of an oldest child will be living alongside the youngest child of a youngest child, etc. In fact, the distribution will take on the shape of a bell curve (see Patriarchal drive in the early post-Flood population, figure 8). Thus, “in the 4th generation” is a bit ambiguous. In the Israelite genealogy, four generations from Abraham only gets you to around the time they entered Egypt. From Jacob, however, it is only four generations to Moses, who did not quite make it back to Canaan. And four generations from the sons and/or grandsons of Jacob who went down into Egypt effectively spans their time in Egypt along multiple lines. Thus, the Israelites could have returned to Canaan after four generations from the people who arrived in Egypt. Yet, this would preclude missing generations and only works in the short Sojourn model.
The family tree in figure 1 is a bit difficult to understand due to its complexity. For example, Hezron had at least four wives, three of whom factor into the tree (represented by the horizonal dotted line), but only one of whom is named. Worse, the line of David goes back to Hezron, but the wife is not named. Even worse, after Hezron died, his son Caleb married one of Hezron’s wives (1 Chronicles 2:24) and had at least one son by her. However, this relationship is not shown because the genealogical data for that line is incomplete. We also included a bump in the long horizontal line that connects Aaron to his wife, Elisheba, so that it did not look like she married Achan. If more names were included in the biblical data, it might not have been possible to actually draw this tree!
It is also good to point out that this is not a family tree of all Israel. It is not even a representative family tree of your average Israelite family. Instead, it represents the leadership structure of the burgeoning nation. As such, only people with the highest status are represented. These included old people, because they are the heads of their clans, and people who are the fewest generations removed from the Patriarchs, because they would naturally have a higher status. There would be many, many people who are farther down the line but who are not included in the data. Thus, most of the lines listed only require a few generations to span the Sojourn and the Exodus.
The number of generations, however, is still a concern. On one extreme, the line between Joseph and Joshua contains 11 generations. Joshua was a young man at the start of the Exodus, lead the Israelite invasion of Canaan, and lived for several more decades (Judges 2:8). He was also chosen as one of the spies to search out Canaan early on. These men were called “chiefs” (Exodus 13:1–2). Is it possible that he was the eldest son in a long line of eldest sons, in other words, the heir to the chiefdom of his tribe? If so, in a short Sojourn, that would amount to only about 22 years per generation. In a long Sojourn, assuming no missing generations, this would require 46 years per generation. The short Sojourn seems to fit the data better.
On the other extreme, consider Joshua’s relative, a woman named Sheerah.3 She and Joshua both descend from Joseph’s grandson Beriah, but there are eight additional generations in Joshua’s line. She was given land among the tribal allotments after the invasion of Canaan (1 Chronicles 7:24). Was this done in her memory, or was she really still alive? Other women were given land,4 so she does not stand out in this regard. Her age, however, is a question. She had to be less than 20 (Numbers 14:29) near the beginning of the Exodus, so she would have had to be born to her father when he was a very old man. This is not impossible, but it is questionable. Yet, people who were fewer generations removed from one of Patriarchs would have had a higher status than most of the other people in the population. If she was truly the great-granddaughter of Joseph, she would have been held in high regard. It might be possible to invoke missing generations in her lineage, but this would not explain why she was seen as special.
The classic argument, however, deals with Moses and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam. According to the Bible, their grandfather was Levi, who was born in Haran (Genesis 29), long before the Israelites arrived in Egypt. Since Levi’s grandson Amram married the daughter of Levi (i.e., his own aunt; Exodus 6:20), Levi was also their great-grandfather. We know the ages of all these people when they died, where they were born, etc. Thus, we can take that data and apply it to a timeline. Figure 2 shows what happens when we try this with a 430-year-long Sojourn. Even if we stretch things out to their maximum values, we cannot span the entire period. If Kohath was born in Canaan the year before they arrived in Egypt and if Amram was conceived the year Kohath died, there is still a gap of approximately 70 years that cannot be covered. Consider also that Jochabed, a daughter of Levi, would have eventually gone through menopause. We do not know how long she lived, but if her lifespan was similar to her contemporaries, she also cannot span the gap to her own children.
However, when we consider a short 215-year Sojourn, the data align perfectly (figure 3). In fact, Miriam, who nearly survived the 40-year Exodus, could have had early memories of Kohath, who was born before the Israelites arrived in Egypt.
Consider the number of people for whom we have a genealogy and the fact that every one of these genealogies suggests a short Sojourn. Perhaps Paul really did mean to say the clock started ticking with Abraham in Galatians 3.
Additional name lists
There is one more type of data we can consider. There are a number of additional people for whom we have genealogies and who can also be pegged to a specific time. In other words, we can count up the number of generations and divide them by a known period of time. This might tell us which model (long or short) is more reasonable. Many of these people lived in the time of King David, but we also have a list for all the subsequent kings of Judah and many of the priests that served them. We may not necessarily know the year they were born, the year they died, or how long they lived, but we can still calculate an average approximate generation time when a person lived through a known historical event.
However, there are two problems with this second data set. First, consider the genealogy of Jesus given to us in Luke 3. There are 54 generations listed between Jacob and Jesus. The 215-year difference between the long and short Sojourn models becomes almost irrelevant (i.e., there is but a 4-year difference in the average generation times between the two models). Second, the people moving into Egypt were living longer than people live today. The important leaders in Israel (the people for whom we have lifespan data) were not that many generations removed from Noah. Thus, you can’t necessarily divide the timespan by the number of generations because the early generations lived so much longer than the latter ones. In the end, the additional genealogical data are not very useful for these purposes.
Most of the data for figure 1 is included in the discussion above. If you want to double check anything, it is not hard to find information for the listed individuals online. To recreate figures 2 and 3, you will need these data:
- Judah and Joseph were born in Haran, probably within the first seven years after Jacob started having children (Genesis 29:31–30:26, “for whom I have served you” indicates the end of the 14-year period of service) but definitely before 20 years had passed (Genesis 31:38)
- Joseph was 17 when he has his first two dreams (Genesis 37:2) and was soon sold into slavery in Egypt.
- Joseph was 30 when he entered Pharaoh’s household (Genesis 41:46).
- Joseph met his brothers in the 2nd year of the famine (Genesis 45:6), which started after 7 years of plenty, thus he was about 39 years old.
- Jacob was 130 when he arrived in Egypt (Genesis 47:9).
- Ages at death: Jacob was 147 (Genesis 47:28), Joseph was 110 (Genesis 50:26), Levi was 137 (Exodus 6:16), Kohath was 133 (Exodus 6:18), Amram was 147 (Exodus 6:20), Aaron was 123 (Numbers 33:39), and Moses was 120 (Deuteronomy 34:6), Joshua was 110 (Judges 2:8).
- Moses’ sister was at least old enough to have a reasonable conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter when Moses was a baby (Exodus 2). Yet, the sister in this passage is not named (neither are Moses’ father or mother, and there is no mention of Aaron). During the Exodus, Moses’ sister Miriam died just a few months before he did. Assuming the older sister in Exodus 2 was Miriam, she was at least 120 + a few years old when she died. Thus, we are claiming she was about 126 when she died, but her exact age is unknown. We do know that Aaron died at the age of 123 only a few months before Moses died at 120, so he was older than Moses.
The question of how long the Israelites were in Egypt cannot be known with absolute certainty. However:
- The genealogical data work perfectly with a short Sojourn.
- The statement of Paul in Galatians 3 strongly suggests the clock started ticking with Abraham.
- It would be very difficult to create a consistent family tree for these people if there were ‘missing’ generations in the data.
- A short Sojourn meets the criteria that they would return to Canaan after four generations had passed.
This is not something we feel one should be dogmatic about, but for the reasons listed above we lean toward a short Sojourn.
References and notes
- For a detailed discussion of the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the LXX and SP, see Cosner, L. and Carter, R., Textual traditions and biblical chronology, J Creation 29(2):99–105, 2015. For information about the LXX vs MT debate, see Cosner, L. and Carter, R., Is the Septuagint a superior text for the Genesis genealogies? Creation.com, 25 September 2018. Return to text.
- See Butt, K., How Long was the Israelites’ Egyptian Sojourn? ApologeticsPress.org, 2001. Return to text.
- All spellings follow the ESV, yet the references to the same people in separate passages can be spelled differently. Return to text.
- E.g., the five daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1–11) and the daughter of Caleb (Joshua 15:18–19), but only in the context of marriage. Return to text.