Four centuries of slavery?

By David M. McNabb

Not everything in the Bible is complicated.  Many of the truths of life are laid out in a very simple manner, or given in such a straightforward way, that one cannot help but comprehend the Creator’s will and purpose.  Others are, truly, extremely profound mysteries which men of God have pondered since the earliest of times.

There are some subjects, however, which, at first, appear quite obvious, but actually need some study to comprehend their full intent.  A casual glance may yield one conclusion, but a comprehensive Bible study will give a much broader, and more fruitful, understanding of the Scriptural truth.  Again, we must not be ignorant of the Word of God, but wise in the knowledge of Him that has called us to glory and virtue.

Let us deal with one such question: How long were the Israelites in Egypt?  This is a very simple question, with an answer that initially seems equally so.  In fact, we are given a very direct answer to this question at the time of Israel’s exodus in Exodus 12:40-41.  “Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.”

Well, then, I guess that settles it.  The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 430 years. There is, however, another scripture which poses some difficulty to that rapid response.

Now, I am convinced that what Paul said in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 is true: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”   This statement, then, would support not only the profitability of Ex. 12:40-41, but of the complete Word of God.  It also declares the harmony of the Scriptures, by saying that it is all inspired by God.

So how, then, am I to understand the words spoken by God to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16?  “And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”

There is no doubt that this is referring to the children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, but the Lord here promises that they would be there for 400 years, not 430.  Paul said that both passages are divinely inspired, and yet, how do we explain the apparent discrepancy?  Which statement is actually true?  Was it 400 years or 430?

By the time the Lord spoke this to Abraham His servant, Abraham was already in Canaan (Gen. 12:5).  He had left Haran, and all that had pertained to his father’s house, according to the Word of the Lord, and had come to the land which the Lord promised he would after receive for an inheritance.  All the days of Abraham’s life, Abraham dwelt in the land of promise, but remained “a stranger in a strange land.”

The same was true of his offspring, according to the Word of the Lord.  In Gen. 37:1, we are told that Isaac fulfilled his portion of God’s promise to Abraham, “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.”  Isaac proclaimed Jacob his son to be a stranger in Gen. 28:3-4, “And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham.”

When there was a famine in the land, Jacob and his sons went to Egypt, where Jacob told Pharaoh that he had been a pilgrim all of his life: 130 years at that time.  Many years later, while Moses was in exile in the land of Midian, he showed that the nature of the descendants of Abraham had not yet changed by naming his firstborn son Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Ex. 2:22).

So, we have determined that all of the children of Abraham, and even Abraham himself, were strangers and pilgrims right up until the days of Moses.  But how long was it?  And how long did the Israelites bear the burdens of the Egyptians?

Let us first look at the “fourth generation.”  The prophecy declared that they would return to Canaan in the fourth generation (Gen. 15:16).  In the days of Moses, the children of Israel marched out of Egypt, and came back to the land, ready to take it for a possession.  If we were to count Moses as a part of this fourth generation, it would give us the following result: Moses (4), Amram (3), Kohath (2), Levi (1).  This is fitting, because the children of Israel went down into Egypt during the days of the twelve sons of Jacob, of which Levi was one.  In fact, Exodus 1:5-6 suggests that Levi’s generation was significant in the counting of their time in Egypt.  It says, “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was in Egypt already. And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.”

Therefore four generations of the children of Israel dwelt in the land of Goshen in Egypt.  While this does deal with the statement that they would return to the land “in the fourth generation,” the timing issue is further complicated once we consider the lives of these men.

According to Genesis chapter 46, Kohath, the son of Levi, had been born before they moved to Egypt, and accompanied the Israelites on the journey to their new home in Goshen.   Kohath’s son Amram, and grandson Moses, were both born in Egypt.  Each of these men’s ages are recorded in the Bible, so we can easily determine something about the timing of Israel’s stay in the land of Egypt.  Kohath lived 133 years (Ex. 6:18); Amram lived 137 years (Ex. 6:20); and at the time of the Exodus, Moses was 80 years old (Ex. 7:7).  The maximum possible amount of time that the children of Israel actually spent in Egypt, then, would be derived from adding these numbers:  133 + 137 + 80 = 350.  This could only be achieved if Kohath was born upon entry into Egypt, Amram was born at Kohath’s death, and Moses was born at Amram’s death.  As this is not a reasonable conclusion, the children of Israel must have stayed in Egypt less than 350 years, far less than the 400 or 430 years we started with.

What time period, then, is covered by the 430 years of Ex. 12:40-41?  The answer to that is found in Galatians 3:16-18.  “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”

It is clear by this passage, that it was 430 years from the time the promise was given to Abraham until the law was given to Moses.  Let us look at that promise: “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran” (Gen. 12:1-4).  So, now we know that from the time when Abraham was 75, until Moses was 80 was 430 years.

What about the 400 years spoken by God to Abraham?  A careful reading of Gen. 15:13 reveals about whom God is speaking.  “And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years…”  Here God is specifically referring to “the seed” of Abraham.  Knowing that Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Gen. 21:5), being his “only son” (Gen. 22:2), we can subtract 25 years from the 430, leaving us 405 years.  To account for the other five years, we must look at an event that would change the status of Isaac, and serve as the beginning of the 400 years.

In Genesis 21:8-9, Abraham threw a great feast to celebrate the day Isaac was weaned.  Sarah saw Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, mocking her son.  She told Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother away, which he did with God’s blessing.  Nevertheless, Ishmael’s actions towards Isaac serves to begin the fulfillment of the prophecy to Abraham regarding his seed: “… they shall afflict thy seed four hundred years,” showing that Isaac was five years old a the time of the celebration.  Over the next 400 years, Abraham’s descendants would be afflicted by the Ishmaelites, the Canaanites, and the Egyptians, to name a few.

So just how long were the Israelites in Egypt?  Isaac had Jacob when he was 60 (Gen. 25:26), 55 years after he was weaned.  Jacob was 130 when he went down into Egypt (Gen. 47:9).  If we add those together (55 + 130 = 185), we see that 185 years had already passed.  So the children of Israel lived in Egypt for 215 years.

But they were not slaves the whole time they were in Egypt either.  Jacob and his sons went to Egypt “in the second year of famine” (Gen. 47:18), when Joseph was 39 years old.  71 years later, Joseph died at 110 years of age, just 64 years before the birth of Moses, and 144 years before the Exodus.  According to Exodus 1, the Israelites grew and multiplied in Egypt.  After Joseph died, and that whole generation passed away, “there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (verse 8).  That is when trouble really started for the seed of Abraham, making the time in which the Israelites were forced to “serve with rigor” less than 140 years.

Israel did not serve Egypt for 430, neither was it enslaved for 400 years.  430 years to the day before the Exodus, God called Abraham out of his land, and away from his kindred, to begin a lifelong pilgrimage.  Thirty years later, Abraham’s son Isaac began to learn that his life, too, would be identified by its lack of a permanent home.  As he began to dwell in Egypt Jacob confessed, “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage” (Gen. 47:9).

For 215 years, the children of Israel made Egypt their home, and during the last roughly 140 years, the afflictions that they had suffered in the brief history of their people came to a crescendo under the harsh rule of the Egyptian taskmasters.  But God, in His infinite wisdom, brought them out of bondage as He had promised, and brought them back to the Promised Land in the fourth generation!  Amen.

Is this land your land?  Is this land my land?

Having established the historical facts of the sojourning of God’s people in the holy Scriptures, I would like to look at one prophetic aspect.  I find it very compelling that Abraham’s descendants were prophesied to dwell “in a land that is not theirs” four hundred years.  In 2003, the State of Virginia issued a license plate highlighting the anniversary of Jamestown: the first permanent English colony in North America.  The license plate displays the years 1607 and 2007, with the caption “400th Anniversary.”

Like Abraham’s descendants of old, Christians have lived on American soil continuously for four hundred years.  Because of the benefits we have enjoyed here, many times we come to think of the United States as a “Christian” country.  The children of Israel came to think of Egypt as their home, even so much as desiring to return there when times in the wilderness got tough.  Apparently, life as a slave in Egypt was at times easier than life as a pilgrim and sojourner elsewhere.  Next year, we – a new batch of the sons of Abraham –  will have lived in a land that is not truly ours for four hundred years.  Are you content here?  Or do you, as a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth, continue to seek the true country of God?  Can God, unashamed, be called your God?  Has God prepared for you a country?  That was the great testimony of the ancient men and women of faith.  Is it yours as well?

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb 11:13-16).

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