When God made his promise to Abram in Genesis 15, He also told Abram that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years. Exodus 12:41 records that Israel's sojourn in Egypt lasted 430 years however, not 400. As if to settle the matter, Galatians 3 says the 430 years began when God spoke His promise to Abraham and his seed, and ended when God introduced the law. So, was the 400 year prophecy part of the 430 years that passed? Or is this a contradiction?
Was the Sojourn in Two Parts?
Scripture records 215 years (Genesis 12:4, 21:5, 25:26, 47:28) from God's promise to Abram until Jacob moved his family to Egypt. Now at the time of the promise, Abram lived in Canaan, a province of Egypt at the time. So technically, 215 years in Canaan might qualify as part of the 430 years in Egypt. Consistant with Exodus 12:40 in the LXX, this leaves 215 years to be slaves.
The problem with breaking the 430 years up into 215 year periods is that Joseph was alive 71 years (Genesis 41:46, 45:6, 50:26) into the second period. Accounting for Moses' age when he received the 10 Commandments, this leaves 64 years (215-71-80=64) for a pharaoah to arise who did not know Joseph, for Israel to grow to an alarming size, and pharaoh to enslave them.
Proponents point out that God outlined several things for the 400 years: Israel would be strangers; they would be enslaved; they would be mistreated. This might not require all 400 years to be in slavery, and it leaves 30 years for peaceful life within the larger 430 year period. Now there was a period when Israel lived peacefully in Egypt, neither stranger nor slave, and not mistreated. However, that period was at least 71 years as measured until Joseph's death. This suggests the 400 years prophecied to Abram could not be contained within the 430 recorded in Exodus 12:41 and Galations 3:17.
One might allow the two halves of the 430 year period to be separated by the time living under Joseph. This would total 501 years, but it still leaves only 30 years after Joseph's death for Israel's slavery to begin, and only 105 years of mistreatment before Moses was born and rescued. Like the previous theory it requires too much history in too little time. By breaking the durations up into parts, and treating the 400 year prophecy as an approximation of the 430, we shortchange the duration of the slavery itself. We cannot tell how long the slavery was, when God clearly meant to tell us.
The Beginning of the 430 Years
To seek some clarification, many look at what Paul wrote in Galatians 3:16-18...
16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,”
meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.
17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later,
does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise;
but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.- NIV
Notice that the law was introduced 430 years after God spoke His promise to Abram "and to his seed." In fact, scripture records God repeating His promise to Isaac, and later to Jacob. The last time God repeated this promise before the Israelites' slavery began was in Genesis 46...
3 “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.
4 I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
This suggests that the 430 years began the year Israel went to Egypt, which was during the 215th year after God's initial promise to Abram2. In other words, "Abraham and his seed" lived peacefully in Canaan for 214 years before starting their 430 year sojourn in Egypt.
The 400 Years
Genesis 15:12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.
13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants
will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. - NIV
Strangers? If the 430 year sojourn began with Joseph in Egypt, then Abram's descendents were not yet strangers, for Joseph was a ruler under Pharaoh. It means the 430 years were not the 400 years prophecied. To figure when the 400 years begin, consider Exodus 12:40...
Exodus 12:40 Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. - NIV
The Hebrew word used for "lived" means sojourn, which refers to a long-term but temporary settlement. At first glance one might think this includes the enslavement, but enslavement is not a sojourn. Besides, as showsn above, the sojourn is too short to include the enslavement. This suggests that the sojourn and enslavement be viewed as two separate but consecutive periods. In that light, the next verse takes on an entirely new meaning...
Exodus 12:41 At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt.
The Hebrew word for divisions is tsaba, which is a mass of persons organized for war. Traditionally, the Israelites are cast as the LORD's divisions, but as we have seen, they did not leave Egypt after 430 years. It begins to paint a grave picture of the transition from a 430 year sojourn to a 400 year slavery: It was God's Angels who left Egypt after 430 years, leaving Israel to Pharaoh's mercy and 400 years of slavery.
If the 400 year enslavement began when the 430 year sojourn ended, then Exodus 12:42 records the reaction. It was spoken on the eve of the Exodus, and is looking back at the end of the sojourn...
Exodus 12:42 Because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt,
on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the LORD for the generations to come. - NIV
There was a vigil the first night of slavery, a vigil when when Israel was freed, and every year since. It is hard to say more however, because the NIV did not quite get the translation correct. Consider this more literal translation...
Exodus 12:42 It was a night of watching unto the LORD for bringing them out from the land of Egypt;
this same night is a night of watching unto the LORD for all the children of Israel throughout their generations - Chief Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz
The night the Angels left Egypt, they kept watch for the night when God would free Israel. 400 years later, the Israelites themselves kept vigil in honor of that freedom. The Jewish people still keep vigil to this day, in an annual celebration called Passover.
When Was the Law Introduced?
Unfortunately, this appears to contradict what Galatians 3:17 says of "The law, introduced 430 years later." This refers to the Exodus, right? Well it does if Galatians is simply clarifying Exodus 12. However, there is another possibility. Paul spoke Greek, as did his audience, and they all would have used the LXX for the Old Testament, which has a somewhat different rendering for Exodus 12:40-42 than the Hebrew...
40 And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Chanaan, was four hundred and thirty years.
41 And it came to pass after the four hundred and thirty years, all the forces of the Lord came forth out of the land of Egypt by night.
42 It is a watch kept to the Lord, so that he should bring them out of the land of Egypt;
that very night is a watch kept to the Lord, so that it should be to all the children of Israel to their generations. - LXX
Now focus on verse 42. Unlike the Hebrew, the LXX switches to present tense in the first half of the verse, clearly equating the vigil of 42a with that of 42b, while the Hebrew is clearly speaking of separate vigils. The LXX speaks only of the Passover; the Hebrew refers to the beginning of slavery, the end of it, and then the Passover. Because Galatians seems more consistent with the LXX, it suggests Paul was not clarifying the Hebrew passage. He he was merely summarizing the Greek. Or was he possibly doing something more clever?
The Law Introduced After 430 Years
As we have seen, the Angels withdrew from Egypt and kept a vigil at the close of the sojourn, while Israel became subject to a new Egyptian slave law. To the Israelites who knew of God's promise, the withdrawal of God's divisions might as well have been a withdrawal of God's promise. But it was not. For one thing, the promise had not yet been fulfilled, and it could not be fulfilled until they left Egypt, and until now they had been too comfortable to leave. So, God withdrew His divisions in order to fulfill His promise. Look again at what Paul wrote, and look for the inspiration in his words...
The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
As easy as it is to equate Paul's statement with the introduction of the Law of Moses, it is equally valid as a statement against Egypt's law of slavery. In fact, read on to Galatians 4, because there are some ways in which this interpretation makes more sense [emphasis added]...
1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.
2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.
3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.
If you read on through verse 4-7, it becomes clear that Paul isn't writing of the slavery in Egypt per se, but is introducing the concept of slavery to a law. There is a duality here, which only comes from the writings of an educated man, someone familiar with the Hebrew and the Greek, someone who knows the Hebrew may be more accurate, but also knows the Galatians were familiar with the Greek. He even wrote his letter in Greek1. Its wording was consistent with what they knew, but could also be interpreted against the more accurate Hebrew. He was not lying per se, but writing a carefully scripted truth that could be read by the Galatians without stumbling on the LXX innaccuracies they may not have been aware of. They might have misunderstand the historical nuance had Paul tried to explain it, but the theology came through loud and clear.
Most people believe that 430 years passed from God's promise until the Exodus. As we have seen however, this duration was much longer, consisting of three consecutive periods: 1) After Abram received the promise of God, his family lived in Canaan for 214 years. 2) Jacob moved the family to Egypt where they sojourned for 430 peaceful years. 3) A Pharoah who did not know Joseph enslaved the Israelites for 400 years. To see confirmation of this timeline, refer to the following GeoCreationism articles: Timeline from the Flood to the Exodus, Lining up Egyptian History with the Exodus.
2. Jacob was 130 years old when he moved to Egypt. However, with the multiple trips taken by Jacob's sons to Egypt before he moved, his family was essentially in sojourn for a time before he moved. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that even while Jacob was 130 when he moved to Egypt, the sojourn itself began when he was 129. Therefore, the total years before sojourn is 214 years, not 215.
6/20/2012 - Updated with new information regarding the Septuagint and Galatians 3.