Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 4: The 430-Year Sojourn

Joseph greets his brothers in Egypt

For Part 1, Introduction go here

For Part 2, Merneptah and the Book of Judges go here

For Part 3, The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology go here

According to Exodus 12:40-41, “The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt (NRSV) [emphasis added].” The KJV translates the emphasized phrase as “children of Israel” and the underlying Hebrew says “ben Yisrael,” which seems to support the KJV translation. In either event, you can’t have Israelites until you have an Israel and the first Israelite is Jacob, who God renamed Israel.

I mention this point because it becomes a significant issue later on in this discussion. Contextually, the only group of Hebrews living for a long time in Egypt would be Jacob, his son Joseph, and their descendants, and this generates lots of problems. However, for the reasons explained below, Jews from at least the third century B.C.E measured the duration by starting from Abraham, who, by definition, is not an Israelite and did not, according to the bible, live in Egypt except for a brief visit in his 75th year.

Where does the 430-year period begin? I’ll start with the arrivals in Egypt of Jacob and his son Joseph. Chronologically, Joseph came to Egypt before Jacob. So do we start with Jacob or Joseph? There is no obvious answer as Joseph is a child of Israel? This gives us two possible time frames for the sojourn, one from Joseph and one from Jacob, but they are not very far apart.

Perhaps the most difficult problem with the 430-year sojourn is that it runs smack into conflict with the claim that there were four hundred years of slavery (Gen 15:13). I’ll examine the slavery issue in the next post in his series.

Joseph came to Egypt in his 17th year (Gen 37:2). The slave period can’t begin until after Joseph died. He lived to the age of 110 (Gen 50:22). If we start the sojourn from his entry into Egypt, then slavery can’t begin for another 93 years, leaving only 337 years for the bondage period.

Jacob came to Egypt during the second year of the famine. Joseph, became Pharaoh’s Prime Minister at the age of thirty, at the start of the seven good years (Gen 41:46). This places Jacob’s arrival in Joseph’s 39th year. Therefore, Joseph came into Egypt 22 years before Jacob (39 – 17 = 22).

If we start the sojourn from Jacob’s entry, then slavery can’t start for at least 71 years, reducing the bondage to about 370 years. In both cases, however, there has to be further delay until the existing pharaoh dies and a new pharaoh, who didn’t know Joseph, came to the throne (Exodus 1:8) That’s an unknown variable.

Genesis contains a chronological birth-death sequence (mostly in Gen 5 and 11) for twenty-three generations of patriarchs, from the birth of Adam to the death of Joseph. The arrangement enables us to calculate how many years passed from Creation to the birth and death of each patriarch but we don’t have an explicit anchor date for Creation. So we have a relative chronology for all of these dates but not an absolute chronology. (Later in this series I will explain how I establish an anchor date for Creation.)

In Part 3, on the 480-year period from Solomon, I pointed out that if we use the traditional Jewish date of Creation, 3761 then the 480-year period is inconsistent with the Genesis chronology, which places the birth of Joseph after the Exodus, which can’t be the case because the bondage didn’t occur until after Joseph died. This meant that if you wanted to use the 480-year marker for the date of the Exodus, you had to push the birth of Joseph back a couple of centuries such that the date of Creation would have to fall earlier than the traditional Jewish date.

In conservative Christian traditions, the 430-year sojourn allows that to happen. This would push Joseph’s birth back by several centuries and lead to a Creation date around the 4100–4000 B.C.E. range.

Calculating from the traditional Jewish date of Creation, Joseph arrived in Egypt at about 1547 and Jacob followed twenty-two years later in 1525. If the Exodus occurred 430 years after those arrival dates then it happened either in 1117 or 1095. Both dates fall well after the erection of the Merneptah stele in the last third of the 13th century B.C.E., which pretty much rules out any Exodus 430 years after either Jacob or Joseph entered Egypt. Furthermore, the biblical version (as opposed to the historical revised version) of the lengths of reign for the Jewish monarchs places the start of King David’s reign at about 1061, bringing the Exodus into or just before the reign of King Saul and wiping out the entire era of the Judges.

Turn now to the Jacob-Moses genealogy. According to Exodus, after Jacob came Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. Levi lived for 137 years (Exodus 6:16); Kohath lived for 133 years (Exodus 6:18); and Amram lived for 137 years (Exodus 6:20). The Exodus occurred in Moses’ 80th year (Exodus 7:7).

However, Gen 46:11 says that Levi and Kohath came into Egypt with Jacob. This means that the entire expanse of the sojourn (counting from Jacob) consists, at most, of the life spans of Kohath, Amram, and Moses (to year 80). If we assume for the sake of argument that Kohath was born shortly after entering Egypt, that is, was not among those who entered Egypt with Jacob, then we have the following chronological sequence for the sojourn: Kohath with 133 years, Amram with 137 years, and Moses with 80 years to the Exodus.

To establish the longest chronological duration possible, assume Kohath became Amram’s father in his 133rd and last year and Amram became Moses’ father in his 137th and last year. (This, of course, is a highly improbable chronology, but let’s go with it anyhow, as it leads to the maximum possible length of the sojourn.)

If we add up 133 + 137 + 80, we get a sojourn that lasted only 350 years from the arrival of Jacob. If we count from Joseph’s arrival instead of Jacob’s we only get up to just over 370 years. This rules out a 430-year sojourn, regardless of which absolute chronology you use or what dates you assign to Jacob or Joseph. On the other hand, even with these shorter sojourn durations, if you want to use the 480-year period from Solomon’s fourth year for the Exodus date, you can still push Joseph’s date back to a much earlier time than allowed by the Jewish date of Creation.

Jewish exegetes devised a different solution to this problem. A Jewish chronographer named Demetrius, believed to have lived in Alexandria during the third century B.C.E., overlapping the period when the Septuagint was created in that city, proposed a different chronological framework. We only know about him because of a fragment preserved by an historian named Alexander Polyhistor, and we only know about his quote because it was preserved by Eusebius in his Preparation for the Gospel.

According to Demetrius, the sojourn lasted 435 years. That is the duration given in the Septuagint, five more than in the Masoretic text. Kohath, he says, was 40 years old when Amram was born and Amram was 78 years old when Moses was born. (Demetrius data from Eusebius, 425a–c) There is no biblical evidence for those ages at the birth of the sons.

This gives the following sequence for the sojourn, Joseph 22 years (until the arrival of Jacob), 40 years for Kohath, 78 years for Amram, and 80 years for Moses until the Exodus. These figures add up to 220 years, leaving 215 years to account for in Demetrius’s 435-year sojourn. Where are the extra 215 years?

According to Demetrius, this additional 215 years corresponds to the time Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in Canaan, but he assigns only twenty-five years to Abraham, measuring it “from the choice of Abraham from the Gentiles and his coming from Charran [i.e., Haran, in Mesopotamia] to Canaan. To be fair, the 25-year period for Abraham in Canaan is the time after which his son Isaac was born, producing the next chronological rung in the genealogical ladder. Demetrius includes that 215 years in his total of 435 years. In effect, this is a two-sojourns solution for the one sojourn described in Exodus.

This response, though, ignores the problem that the 430-year passage says the “Israelites [or children of Israel] had lived in Egypt.” Abraham and his son Isaac were not Israelites and this 215-year period in Canaan was not lived in Egypt, although, per Genesis, Abraham did briefly visit Egypt in the same year that he entered Canaan.

Josephus, writing about three hundred years later, says, “They 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 (Antiquities II:318).” Notice how Josephus rewords the passage to get around the claim that the sojourn in Egypt was 430 years.

Josephus preserves the correct duration from the Masoretic text but shares Demetrius’s two-sojourns-solution, that the 430 years encompasses 215 years in Canaan and 215 in Egypt, But he remained confused on the issue because earlier in his book he writes, “And four hundred years did they spend under these afflictions; for they strove one against the other which should get the mastery, the Egyptians desiring to destroy the Israelites by these labors, and the Israelites desiring to hold out to the end under them. (Antiquities II:204).” Was it four hundred years of slavery or just a 215-year sojourn? It can’t be both but Josephus includes these contradictory claims in his history of the Jews.

In the Genesis chronology, using the Jewish date of Creation, Abraham was born in 1815 (Gen 5 and 11). Abraham left for Haran when he was 75 (Gen 12:4). Almost immediately upon entering Canaan, he moved to Egypt (Gen 12:10). This would have happened in 1740. This is the year that Demetrious and Josephus start from.

This would indicate that the 215 years in Canaan ended in 1525, at which time, according to the Genesis chronology, Jacob entered Egypt. Therefore, the first part of the solution is accurate. The Genesis chronology does indicate that there are 215 years from the time Abraham entered Canaan (and more importantly also entered Egypt) to the time Jacob entered Egypt. But there is no chronological data in the bible indicating that there were 215 (or 220) years from Jacob’s entry into Egypt to the Exodus from Egypt. That conclusion is a product of exegesis and/or invented numbers outside of the bible.

Nevertheless, let’s calculate an Exodus date 430 years after Abraham left for Haran and entered Egypt. Using the traditional Jewish date of Creation, Abraham left for Haran in his 75th year, which would have been the year 1740 (as pointed out above.) Subtracting 430 years from that date places the Exodus in 1311 and that is the date modern orthodox and conservative Jews use for the date of the Exodus.

Josephus was a member of a priestly family and well-educated as his writings make clear. It is reasonable to assume that by his time, the 430-year sojourn had already been converted into two separate sojourns, one in Canaan and one in Egypt, and had become the accepted opinion of the rabbinate of his time, despite the other inconsistencies that I pointed out above. What is going on in Egypt at about 1311? I’ll explore that question as part of the next discussion in Part 5: The 400-year bondage problem.

Here’s a final question. In Part 3, I pointed out that if we followed the biblical chronology of the Hebrew kings from the fourth year of Solomon’s reign to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the total span is 430 years, running from the building of the Temple to the destruction of the Temple. While the sequential nature of the Biblical chronology as presented is somewhat inconsistent with the historical data, it was the chronology used by the ancient Hebrew scribes.

Nevertheless, there doesn’t appear any sense that the data has been falsified or manipulated. Edward Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings) has convincingly proven that the underlying biblical chronology is soundly based on historical data but that reading the chronology requires us to understand numerous features about how data for reigns was entered in both the northern and southern kingdoms. For example, how were partial first years of a reign handled and did the north and the south follow the same rule? Does the biblical chronology have indications that there were coregencies? In what month did the north and the south start the year and did they use the same month. What do we learn from synchronizations with external historical chronologies? Taking these and other issues into account he fully reconciled the existing data with the historical record by showing us how the data is supposed to be read. I’m not going into that here.

My question is whether the 430-year sojourn in Egypt was a fictional creation meant to mirror the biblical chronological sequence of Judean kings from Temple construction to Temple destruction, or did the scribe have a different source for the 430-year figure? The mirror image would be that the Egyptian sojourn went from foreign domination (both before and after slavery) to liberation and the Monarchy went from liberation to foreign domination.

Conclusions: Regardless of which absolute chronology we use, traditional Jewish or expanded, the 430-year sojourn doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The birth spans from Jacob to Moses shorten the duration considerably. There are also significant issues of conflict between the 400 years of bondage and the 430-year sojourn.

Further, in Demetrius’s two-sojourn chronology, the ages when Kohath and Amram fathered children significantly shorten the sojourn even further. Additionally, the use of the dual-sojourn interpretation by Josephus suggests that the Jewish scholars of his time had already accepted this interpretation. In the dual sojourn thesis, the time in Egypt lasted only 215 years and the period of bondage would have to be significantly shorter than that.

In order to accept the two-sojourn explanation, one has to reject the plain meaning of Exodus 12:40-41, and reduce the 430-year sojourn in Egypt to 215 years. This significantly contradicts the claim that there were four hundred years of bondage.

Even if rejecting the two-sojourn interpretation, one is still left with no more than a 370-year sojourn, which also contradicts the claim of 400 years of slavery. However, it still provides an opportunity to move Joseph further back in time in order to place the Exodus 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. On the other hand, the two-sojourn theory leaves the traditional Jewish chronology in place and dates the Exodus to 1311. The implications of that date will be explored in the next post.

Coming up next: The 400-year bondage problem.

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