The legendary time-span in which the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt is variously given. Genesis 15:13 states that it was 400 years, presented in the guise of prophecy from Yahweh’s own mouth. While in Exodus 12:40 the narrator states that it was 430 years. Not surprisingly, both of these passages belong to 2 different and once separate textual traditions which were later edited together. The account in Genesis is from the Yahwist, while that of Exodus from the Priestly writer, as we will see when we get to the book of Exodus.
Both of these dates are fictional. 400 is a traditionally used round number expressing 10 generations—10 x the mythic 40 yrs for each generation. The 430 years of P is calculated with a different plan in mind, and is representative of this author’s larger interest in dates and the periodization of history in general.
The earlier Deuteronomic tradition accords 430 years to the time period in which the Temple stood, from the 4th year of Solomon’s reign to its destruction by the Babylonians in 587 BC. The author of Ezekiel, an exilic text, presents Yahweh commanding Ezekiel to spend 390 days lying on his left side to pay for the sins of Israel (1 day equivalent to 1 year), and 40 days on his right side to pay for the sins of Judah (Ez 4:4-6). Thus the period of paying for sins was envisioned as being equivalent to the period in which the monarchy stood, 430 years. Could the Priestly writer be drawing from these traditions and using the Exodus captivity to also express the same period of paying for (future) sins? It seems likely.
So in P’s periodization there is a certain symmetry: 430 years of Egyptian captivity—430 years representative of the wilderness period and pre-monarchal Israel—430 years that the monarchy stood. This 430 year period will fuel later apocalyptic traditions. Fiction fueled by fiction, and forged into reality! Quite an interesting phenomenon!
That’s it for today. Short and bitter.
We have now successfully finished our first month of posting 1 biblical contradiction a day and we have only finished 1/3 of the book of Genesis! My goals have been: 1) trying to be as honest as I can to the biblical texts themselves (our J, P, E, etc.)—and not to the Bible which is a different thing all together; 2) explaining the contradictions in the biblical text—because it is a compilation of competing and variant texts and traditions; 3) speculating a bit on when these separate textual traditions were written, by whom, for whom, and to address what historical, religious, or political purpose; and 4) looking forward to the broader ramifications, conclusions, and questions this study ultimately raises about the Bible and more so about the ways in which we as a culture have come to (mis)conceptualize and (mis)understand the Bible. All of these goals and the questions they raise will follow us throughout this 5+ year-long study! I’d like to hear more from my readers on any of these aspects as we venture forward.