How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?

Were the Israelites in Egypt 430 years or 400 years? Or perhaps just 215 years?!?! Let’s take a look at what the Scriptures say.

First consider Exodus 12:40-41 (ESV):

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.

Now consider Galatians 3:15-17 (ESV):

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.

In these two passages, the numbers match (430). However, while in Exodus it seems these 430 years refer specifically (and exclusively) to the Israelites’ time in Egypt, in Galatians it seems these 430 years actually span from God’s promise to Abraham to the giving of the law (shortly after the exodus from Egypt).

So, what should we do with this apparent discrepancy?

Consider this timeline below from “How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?” by David Wright. (See full article here.) This shows how the genealogical data provided in the Old Testament supports the plain reading of Galatians 3:15-17, limiting the Israelites time as slaves in Egypt to around 215 years.

Table 1: Timeline showing dates from God’s promise to Abraham to the exodus from Egypt.

Patriarch: Age Event Passage Years from Promise Years to Exodus
Abraham: 75 God makes the promise to Abraham and he leaves Haran. Genesis 12:1–4 0 430
Abraham: 75-85 God tells Abraham his descendants “will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there and they will be afflicted for 400 years.” Genesis 15:13; Acts 7:6 0–10 420–430
Abraham: 85 Abraham has lived in Canaan for 10 years and takes Hagar as his wife and she conceives Ishmael. Genesis 16:3–4 10 420
Abraham: 86 Ishmael is born. Genesis 16:15–16 11 419
Abraham: 100 Ishmael: 14 Isaac is born. Genesis 21:5 25 405
Abraham: 105 Isaac: 5 Ishmael: 19 Isaac is weaned and Ishmael mocks/persecutes Isaac. Genesis 21:8–9; Galatians 4:29 30 400
Abraham: 140 Isaac: 40 Isaac marries Rebekah. Genesis 24:1–67;25:20 65 365
Abraham: 160 Isaac: 60 Esau and Jacob are born. Genesis 25:26 85 345
Abraham: 175 Isaac: 75 Jacob: 15 Abraham dies. Genesis 25:7 100 330
Isaac: 151 Jacob: 91 Joseph is born. 176 254
Isaac: 168 Jacob: 108 Joseph: 17 Joseph is sold by his brothers and taken to Egypt. Genesis 37 193 237
Isaac: 180 Jacob: 120 Joseph: 29 Isaac dies. Genesis 35: 28–29 205 225
Jacob: 121 Joseph: 30 Joseph is made second in command by Pharaoh. Genesis 41:46 206 224
Jacob: 130 Joseph: 39 Joseph reveals himself to his brothers two years into the famine with five years left. Jacob meets Pharaoh. Genesis 45:4–6 Genesis 47:9 215 215
Jacob: 147 Joseph: 56 Jacob dies. Genesis 47:28–49:33 232 198
Joseph: 110 Joseph dies. Genesis 50:26 286 144
Only 64 years pass from the time Joseph dies to when Moses is born.. Exodus 6:16–20
Moses: 3 months Moses is placed in a basket and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Exodus 2 350 80
Moses: 80 Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh beginning the exodus from Egypt. Exodus 7:7; Exodus 12:40–41; Galatians 3:16–17 430 0

So, 215 years from the promise to the famine + 215 years in Egypt = 430 years.

Now consider Genesis 15:13-16 (ESV):

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.”

First, why 400 years here rather than 430? I have often heard it said that this is simply a rounding off. What if there is more to it than that, though? Perhaps it could be that while God’s promise to Abraham stretches back 430 from the exodus, the affliction spoken of here only stretches back 400 years –  that is, to 30 years after the promise. This would correspond with the time Hagar the Egyptian and her son Ishmael were cast out of the camp upon Isaac’s weaning (Genesis 21:8-21). Such could be viewed as the sowing of the Egyptian’s affliction of the Israelites.

A second thing to consider in the above passage is that the Lord tells Abram “…[your descendants] shall come back here in the fourth generation…” – that is, come back to Canaan from Egypt . It is no doubt easier to fit these four generations in 215 years rather than 430 (or 400).

But (again) Exodus 12:40 clearly states that “the time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years” (not 215)! How does one deal with this? As clear as this seems, should we not instead scrutinize Galatians and the biblical timeline?

Well interestingly, in both the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, Exodus 12:40 reads, “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.” (Read more on this here)

In accordance with this, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote in Antiquities of the Jews, that the Israelites “left Egypt in the month of Xanthicus, on the fifteenth day of the lunar month; four hundred and thirty years after our forefather Abraham came into Canaan, but two hundred and fifteen years only after Jacob removed into Egypt.

So then, the proposition that the Israelites were actually in Egypt only 215ish years (some calculate 210, by the way) is not made only by Christians in order to accommodate Galatians. This has long been a Jewish belief – hence why Paul apparently believed it. Accordingly, it is backed up by Josephus and not to mention many Jewish commentators as well. Most importantly, though, there is both Old Testament and New Testament evidence supporting this proposition. Yes, there are apparent discrepancies. Otherwise there would be no need for such a discussion. Here, I have outlined one way to resolve such seeming contradictions.

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