Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 5: The 400 years of slavery

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

For Part 4, The 430-year Sojourn go here

Genesis 15:13–16 is the source of the biblical claim that Israel suffered 400 years of bondage in Egypt. The passage, as I‘ll reiterate below, is inconsistent with the claim that Israel sojourned in Egypt for 430 years. There are also several problems with the internal content. The verse reads as follows.

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed 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 yourself, you shall go to your ancestors 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 NSRV)”

This passage has several parts. (1) Abraham’s offspring will be slaves in a land where they are “aliens” (per the NRSV) or “strangers (per the KJV). (2) the oppression will last 400 years. (3) “They” shall return “here” in the fourth generation. (4) They won’t return to “here” until the iniquity of the Amorites has ended.

The passage generates many interpretive problems, at least for me. Implicitly, “here” is in Canaan, which is where the narrative context places Abraham. Just about all scholars accept that the “strange land” that afflicted Israel is Egypt and the return is to Canaan. This interpretation strikes me as wrong because, in all other biblical passages referring to the patriarchs as strangers in a land, it is Canaan that is the strange land. I’ll discuss that point further below. Let’s look at some of the chronological problems first.

The major chronological problem is the conflict with the 430-year sojourn passage, discussed in Part 4. The Period of enslavement can’t begin until after Joseph died and he lived to the age of 110 (Genesis 50:26). That’s only if we start the enslavement right after he dies. Technically, we need to delay the enslavement until a new pharaoh could come to the throne, one who didn’t know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). Also, time was needed for Israel to grow into a major military threat to the Egyptians (Exodus 1:9). But let’s put those issues aside.

If the sojourn of 430 years began when Joseph first entered Egypt in his 17th year, then Joseph wouldn’t die for another 93 years. That leaves only 337 years for the period of bondage.

If we start the sojourn with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt in Joseph’s 39th year, we have a slightly longer period of bondage. It would be 71 years before Joseph died. That reduces the possible period of slavery to 359 years

There is no getting around this issue. If we assume that the sojourn lasted 430 years, beginning with either Joseph or Jacob, then the period of bondage has to be less than 400 years. Alternatively, if we assume that there were 400 years of bondage, then the sojourn has to be either 471 years or 493 years. The two time periods are in an irreconcilable conflict and it can’t be solved by moving Joseph to an earlier date.

In order to deal with this, as noted in Part 4, second Temple Jewish scholars reinterpreted the sojourn such that it began with Abraham instead of Joseph or Jacob, but that doesn’t solve the conflict either. In this new interpretation, there are 215 years from Abraham’s entry into Egypt to Jacob’s entry into Egypt and then 215 years running from Jacob to the Exodus. But that makes the situation worse.

If Jacob came to Egypt 215 years before the Exodus, and he arrived in Egypt during Joseph’s 39th year, then we have to subtract 71 years (the time to Joseph’s death) from the 215 years, reducing the bondage to about 144 years. The conflict doesn’t go away.

Even Josephus, the remarkable first-century Jewish historian and member of a priestly family, couldn’t quite grasp this chronological conflict. He wrote in his history of the Jews that there were only 215 years from Jacob to the end of the sojourn (Antiquities II:318) but elsewhere writes that there were 400 years of slavery (Antiquities II:204). Something has to give. Either the sojourn figure is wrong, the bondage figure is wrong, or both figures are wrong.

Another chronological problem concerns the Merneptah stele. If we use the Jewish date of Creation, 3761, Joseph died in 1454. The Merneptah stele dates to the last third of the 13th century B.C.E. The stele has Israel already in Canaan, which presumably occurred at least forty years after the Exodus. That shortens the Exodus date to about 160 years or less after the death of Joseph. This is another reason that some solutions require Joseph’s time period to be pushed back to an earlier time that would indicate an earlier date for Creation than the traditional Jewish date.

One problem with the 400-year prophesy concerns the claim that the return to wherever “here” is would occur in the fourth generation. The passage, however, doesn’t say fourth generation from whom. Assuming that the first generation begins with Abraham’s son Isaac, we have the following genealogical generational sequence, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kohath. That would make Kohath the generation of the return and he entered Egypt with Jacob. We still need Amram and then Moses before we get to the Exodus. So the generational part of the prophecy about a return may apply to something other than Moses leading Israel out of Egypt.

If the sojourn started with Abraham, as proposed by second temple Jewish scholars, the text bible says that Abraham left Egypt. If we count four generations beginning with Abraham leaving Egypt, we have a sequence of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Joseph is the first to enter Egypt. In a sense, then, he is returning to Egypt in the fourth generation after Abraham left it.

Another chronological path we might consider is that Genesis says the Exodus occurred after Abraham’s seed suffered for four hundred years. If we start with Isaac, his son, as the first of the seed, then we can get a potential Exodus date, by counting four hundred years from the birth of Isaac to the Exodus.

According to the Genesis chronology based on the traditional Jewish Creation date, we can date the birth of Isaac to 1715. Four hundred years later would be 1315, five years earlier than the date indicated by those who placed Jacob in Egypt 215 years before the Exodus. The 215 years for Jacob and his descendants was based on the need to solve the 430-year sojourn problem but there is no actual data in the bible placing him 215 years before the Exodus.

This 1310 date, however, would derive from the 400-year affliction beginning with Isaac’s birth. What would that affliction have been, however, if Isaac and the early portion of Jacob’s life occurred outside of Egypt? That is a discussion for later.

On the other hand, if Joseph’s birth date is moved earlier in time in order to solve other chronological problems, and the same argument is applied, we would have an earlier Exodus date that would depend upon how far back Joseph’s birth was moved, and there could be several alternative theories concerning where to place Joseph’s birth in the timeline.

Let me turn now to a discussion of where Abraham’s seed would be strangers. As I said, other passages referring to Abraham and his seed being strangers in a foreign land all make Canaan that land. At Genesis 17:8, God says to Abraham, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God [emphasis added] (NRSV).” KJV has “stranger” instead of “alien.”

The passage is pretty clear. Genesis identifies Canaan as the land where Abraham is a stranger. The prophecy, however, talks about Abraham’s seed being strangers. It could be argued that if this was the only passage that talked about strangers, then it only applied to Abraham and not his seed and, therefore, there was no problem with the prophecy. But other passages deal with Abraham’s seed.

At Genesis 28:4, Isaac says to Jacob, that God will bless him and “May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien—land that God gave to Abraham [emphasis added] (NRSV].” The KJV has “stranger” instead of “alien.”

This passage says that Jacob is a “stranger” in the land of Canaan and one day, God willing, he will take possession of it. It refers to Jacob receiving the same blessing that Abraham received, which included taking possession of the land where he (Jacob) was a stranger.

At Genesis 37:1, the text says, “Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan [emphasis added] (NRSV). KJV has “stranger” instead of “alien.” Jacob’s father is Isaac. This describes Isaac as a stranger in Canaan. Some might try to stretch the term “father” to include a grandfather (Abraham) but the context doesn’t suggest that.

To put away any doubt that the strange land was Canaan, consider Exodus 6:3–4. God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty [i.e., el shaddai], but by my name ‘The LORD’ [i.e., Jahweh) I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens [emphasis added] (NRSV).” KJV has “stranger” instead of “alien.” Here all three patriarchs–Abraham Isaac, and Jacob–are jointly referred to as “strangers” in Canaan. So the tradition seems pretty clear. Canaan is where the patriarchs were strangers. Egypt was the land where their seed were slaves.

In Genesis, Jacob arrived in Egypt with about 70 males and Moses left with about 600,000 males. (I am not justifying or accepting these numbers. They are the biblical claims and establish a context.) It is in Egypt, according to the bible, where Israel became a major nation that could threaten Pharaoh. So powerful, allegedly, that Pharaoh sought to enslave them because otherwise they might overthrow the Egyptian ruler (Exodus 1:9). From the biblical context, Egypt might be the one country where the Hebrews were not strangers.

So what are we to make of the 400-year prophecy to Abraham that the Hebrews would be enslaved in the land where they were strangers if the strange land were Canaan and not Egypt? And, what land would they be returning to? These questions are far too difficult and complex to take up in a blog post or two. A full discussion appears in The Moses Mystery, my study on the origins of the Exodus.

What I will say at this point is that I interpret the prophecy as two separate unrelated predictions that were subsequently joined together by a redactor who no longer understood the original meanings. The first prediction is that the Hebrews will suffer from four hundred years of affliction in or from Canaanites. The second prediction is a return to “here” in the fourth generation.

If Abraham can be counted as the first generation, then the fourth generation would be Joseph (after Isaac and Jacob). Abraham left Egypt and Joseph came to Egypt, where he remained. So a return to “here” may signify Egypt. At least one of these predictions won’t come to fruition until the iniquity of the Amorites ends.

The Amorites are Canaanites and the iniquity may indicate that the Amorites were responsible for the oppression of the Hebrews in Canaan, the land where Abraham and his seed are strangers, but the bible says nothing about what this iniquity is. You may see where this is starting to lead, but that is all I will say for now.

Coming up next: Part 6: The Hyksos theory

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