#82. How long were the Hebrews enslaved: 400 years OR a mere generation? (Gen 15:13 vs Ex1:6-12)


As I was typing up yesterday’s contradiction (#81), it dawned on me that the imposition of the later Priestly writer’s chronology onto the older JE sources was not the only visible discrepancy in the narrative’s chronology. It was also there in the older sources themselves. So we’ll backtrack a bit here and note one more Genesis-Exodus contradiction.

In Genesis 15:13, Yahweh is presented as claiming/prophesying to Abraham that the Hebrews will be “slaves in a land not theirs and will serve them, and they will oppress them 400 years.”

Yet this is not at all what happens, and it is in fact completely negated by what is claimed in the opening of the book of Exodus. For there we learn that the enslavement and oppression only occur after Joseph, his brothers, and all that generation had died and on the eve of Moses’ birth! In other words, only for a generation, or 80 years if we adopt P’s age of 80 for Moses at the time of the exodus (Ex 7:7).

In fact, when we come to think about this further Genesis 15:13 is the only text in the Hebrew Bible that claims, from Yahweh’s prophetic lips (!), that the Hebrews will be enslaved for 400 years. Earlier in contradiction #32 we saw that the Priestly writer attributed 430 years to this period. But on closer examination Exodus 12:40, P’s text, claims that 430 years was the duration of the captivity, not of the enslavement! The Priestly source does not say a word about the length of the enslavement.

We are left then with this:

  • Exodus 1:8-11, which is usually attributed to E, claims that the Hebrews were oppressed for just a generation—the generation in which Moses is born.
  • P claims 430 years for the entire duration in Egypt, and acknowledging P’s age of 80 for Moses at the time of the exodus, puts the period of enslavement at around 80+ years.

Genesis 15:13, in other words, is the only text from the Hebrew Bible that makes the claim that the Hebrews were enslaved for 400 years. There might be something else going on here as well.

Source critics have always been stumped by Genesis 15:13-17a. It is usually marked as unidentifiable. Richard Friedman,1 for example, notes how it awkwardly sits in its present context, i.e., the Yahwist narrative

  1. It is enclosed by a resumptive repetition. That is editors often left clues in the text when they inserted later passages into an already existing text. We will see better examples of this later, but basically the scribe repeats the last sentence in the text as the last sentence in the excerpt he has just inserted, so we come back to the point in the narrative before the insertion was made. Here, the resumptive repetition is “the sun was about to set” (v. 12) in the original Yahwist text and “the sun was setting” (v. 17a) at the end of the inserted text.
  2. This prophecy has nothing whatsoever to do with the present narrative context, the covenant. It in fact disrupts the narrative.
  3. The vocabulary used seems to be a melange of different sources.

It is quite possible, in fact, that Genesis 15:13-17a was a later scribal addition or even gloss that got incorporated into the text at a later time period. If this were the case, then this is yet another excellent example of how a later interpretive tradition becomes more authoritative than the text it purports to interpret! That is to say, ask any moderner how long was the Egyptian enslavement and the response you’d get would be 400 years (or maybe 430 years from P). But there is only 1 passage in the whole Hebrew Bible that affirms this, and the textual evidence suggests that it is a later inserted passage! Moreover, no other passage in the Hebrew Bible confirms Yahweh’s prophecy in Genesis 15:13-17 and in fact refutes and negates it! But this later interpretive tradition has become the more authoritative, the more remembered, the more trusted—even though other and earlier biblical texts do not substantiate this passage’s assertion and make contradictory claims.

This is precisely how later interpretive traditions subvert the very texts they purport to represent. This is what I’ve already written extensively about with respect to another later interpretive tradition, the one that goes by the name “the holy Bible.” See What is the Bible?


  1. The Bible with Sources Revealed, 54.

6 thoughts on “#82. How long were the Hebrews enslaved: 400 years OR a mere generation? (Gen 15:13 vs Ex1:6-12)

  1. If you read about Jacob in the bible (the ladder to heaven)it was a future prophecy of what would happen to his future seed.
    The 400 years is the slave trade read about it.
    Ask a Jew when they were exiled?

    King James Bible
    Revelation 2:9
    I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are NOT, but are the synagogue of Satan.

    Read the invention of the Jewish people – Shlomo Sand

  2. The 400-year affliction can also be disproved as follows (with thanks to Joseph Wheless):

    Kohath lived 133 years (Exodus 6:18), while Amram lived 137 years (Exodus 6:20). If we generously allow that Kohath was a newborn baby, when the family moved to Egypt, and that he begat Amram in the very last year of his life, and that Amram in turn begat Moses in his very last year, we only get 133 + 137 + 80 (Moses’ age when leaving Egypt, Exodus 7:7). That’s a maximum of 350 years for the entire sojourn. Good times as well as bad times.

    350 years is the most we can stretch those 3 generations to, but it gets even worse, when we remember again that Amram married his own aunt, Jochebed . There’s no need to do the exact math here — suffice it to say that since there’s one less generation on the distaff side than on the sword side, it means in rough numbers, that Jochebed would have had to be as old as Kohath and Amram combined. Admittedly the Bible doesn’t state in so many words that Jochebed wasn’t 270 years, when she gave birth to Moses, but this would mean the she was thrice as old as Sarah was, when she conceived, which (in Sarah’s case) took a good deal of divine assistance.

  3. This 400-year affliction can be easily disproven as follows:
    Genesis 41:46 states that Joseph was 30 when he came to power: “Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Genesis 50:26 says that he died at age 110: “And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old…” Joseph, then, ruled for 80 years (110-30=80). After Joseph rose to power, there were seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:29 ff), and the Israelites entered Egypt two years into the years of famine (Genesis 45:6-12), which would be the ninth year after Joseph rose to power. 80 years of Joseph’s rule, minus nine years before the Israelites arrived, means that for at least 71 years the Israelites lived in Egypt without being enslaved (see Exodus 1:6 ff). 430 years for the sojourn minus 71 years means that at most, the Israelites were enslaved for 359 years–and this calculation doesn’t even attempt to reconcile these figures with the genealogy in Exodus 6:16 ff, which could reduce the number even more.

    To anyone not set on defending inerrancy at all costs, this should suffice. But there is yet another way to disprove the 400-year figure. Exodus 1:8 mentions the pharaoh who rose to power and “did not know Joseph,” who subsequently subjected the Israelites to forced labor (v: 11). This, then, is when the oppression of Genesis 15 must necessarily start. But here’s the interesting thing. We know that Moses was 80 when he led the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 7:7)–the ending point of the 400-year oppression. Now, if 400 years of oppression occurred, and if Moses was 80 when the oppression ended, this necessarily means that the Israelites were oppressed for 320 years between the start of pharaoh’s reign (Exodus 1:8) and the birth of Moses (Exodus 2:1-2). Exodus 2:11-12 refers to Moses’ visit to his people and subsequent murder of an Egyptian. Acts 7:23 states that Moses was 40 at the time, and the oppressive pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph didn’t die until some point after Moses went into exile (Exodus 2:15, 22), so this means that the pharaoh had to have lived for close to 400 years, maybe longer (320 years of oppression before Moses’ birth + at least 40 years after Moses’ birth + pharaoh’s age when he became pharaoh)—a ridiculously high figure even by biblical standards. Keep in mind that the venerable Moses only lived to be 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7), the very age to which God had limited man’s lifespan (Genesis 6:3). The intuitively absurd notion that God exempted the evil pharaoh from the age limitation—allowing him to live over three times longer than Moses—and the fact that there is no record of any pharaoh reigning for 360-plus years(!), betray yet again the errant, human composition of the Bible.

    1. Nice addition John. Most of this is treated above and in contradiction #32. I try not to use terms such as inerrant or even errant because both terms already presume a “given” that is actually inaccurate. If one makes the claim that the biblical text is errant, then one is working from the erroneous assumption that the biblical writers were recording history. I’ve discussed this more specifically in How do we know the Bible’s authors were not writing history. Obviously you don’t start from that assumption, but the word errant plays into that assumption—the erroneous “given” of many fundamentalist types of Christianity. Rather, the authors were producing powerful pieces of fiction, that indeed did have historical data in them. But the narrative, story-line, was a creation. In the above, there were different traditions that provided the date 400 and 430—the tradition 40 years per generation x10 and the Priestly writer’s calculation of the period the second temple did historically stand, from the Priestly writer’s calculation, 430 years (#32).

  4. Pardon me if this has been covered before, but isn’t here also a problem with Genesis 15,16, “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation“?

    The words don’t make sense directed to Abraham. If we follow Moses’ lineage, we get Abraham -> Isaac -> Jacob -> Levi -> Kohath -> Amram -> Moses for a total of 7 generations, and since Moses and the rest of his generation didn’t enter the Promised Land, we get eight generations.

    Following Joshua’s lineage gives an even longer list: Abraham -> Isaac -> Jacob -> Joseph -> Ephraim -> Beriah -> Rephah -> Telah -> Tahan -> Ladan -> Ammihud -> Elishama -> Nun -> Joshua (1 Chronicles 7.20-27).

    Interpreting the four generations as “four generations in Egypt” doesn’t really work either, since Kohath was already born before Jacob’s family entered Egypt (Genesis 46,11), so we only get 2 generations in Egypt (Amram and Moses) – or rather 1 and a half generation, since Amram’s wife was his own aunt (Exodus 6,18).

  5. Excellent textual analysis. This has all been fascinating and EXTREMELY instructive for me. You make good, and convincing arguments that attempt to look at and understand the Bible’s texts before they were hijacked as part of the Bible and then took on different meanings and readings. Funny, this still goes on today. Thank you once again !!

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