Did the Israelites spend 400 years in Egypt?

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The 400 years

The 400 years are mentioned in Genesis 15. Abram wondered how much longer he would have to remain a stranger in the Land of Promise, and if he would ever see the fulfillment of God’s promises. The Lord therefore revealed the answer to him saying: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

Abram’s son Isaac was “persecuted” by Ishmael (Galatians 4:29; Genesis 21:9). Jacob was threatened by Esau his brother (Genesis 27:41–43) and later from Laban (Genesis 31:2, 21, 29). Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers and later unfairly jailed (Genesis 37:28; 39:20). The children of Israel, at last, were greatly oppressed by the Egyptians after Joseph’s death (Exodus 1:8, 12).

There are two questions that need to be answered here: Are the 400 years the time of affliction or the time of sojourning, or both? Are the 400 years related to the 430 years of Exodus 12:40, 41 and Galatians 3:16, 17?  

When did the 430 years start?

In Exodus 12:40, “the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years,” suggests that the Israelites did spend four hundred and thirty years there, from Jacob’s entry to the Exodus. That this cannot be the meaning is clear from Galatians 3:16, 17, where it is said that the law was made public at Sinai 430 years after the covenant between God and Abram.  

If Paul refers to the first promise made to Abram in Haran (Genesis 12:1–3), the 430 years began when Abram was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4). The 400 years of affliction would then begin 30 years later, when Abram was 105 years old and his son Isaac 5 years old (Genesis 21:5). This would be about the time Ishmael, who “was born after the flesh persecuted him [Isaac] that was born after the Spirit” (Galatians 4:29; Genesis 21:9–11). 

The precise time from the call of Abram to Jacob’s entrance into Egypt was 215 years (Genesis 21:5; 25:26; 47:9), which would leave 215 years of the 430 as the real time the Hebrews spent there. Therefore, the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 must encompass the sojourn in Canaan as well as that in Egypt, from Abram’s call to the Exodus.  

The LXX (the Septuagint) show Exodus 12:40 thus: “And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, was four hundred and thirty years.” As shown before, the land of Canaan relied greatly upon Egypt during the patriarchal era that the Egyptian kings regarded it as theirs. During the Eighteenth Dynasty, whose kings ruled both Palestine and Syria, Moses could accurately encompass Canaan in the term Egypt as used in Exodus 12:40. 

Four generations

Genesis 15:16 says, “But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Bible Commentators, who apply the 400 years of Genesis 15:13 to the actual time the Hebrews lived in Egypt, face a problem. They must suppose that the four generations averaged exactly 100 years each. But this is opposing to available proof. However, since the 400 years of v. 13 must refer to the time from Abram to the Exodus (v. 13), and the actual time of Israel’s remaining in Egypt was only 215 years, no inconsistency exists between this prophecy and its fulfillment.  

Caleb was part of the fourth generation from Judah (1 Chronicles 2:3–5, 18), and Moses, from Levi (Exodus 6:16–20). Efforts to determine the length of a “generation” based on Genesis 15:13, 16 are unreasonable, and the outcomes are deceptive. One “generation,” went into Egypt, two lived there, and the fourth left. 

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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