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How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?

Just how long were the Israelites in Egypt? Was it some 400 years, or was it 430 years? Or was it a lower number, around 215 years?

The challenge of harmonizing the various passages on the length of time the Israelites were in Egypt has created much heat and some light over the years, and as a result there are some good solutions, some so-so, and some very not good ones as well. Plainly, since the Scriptures are inerrant, being verbally plenary inspired, the Scriptures are right and the apparent difficulty is with us and not the Bible. This is part of the joy of wrestling with the Bible – coming to understand it by subduing and suspending our own biases and ignorance.

This Scriptural textual solution by David Wright of Answers in Genesis, along with the following important introductory and Egyptian chronology notes by Eric Peterman, provides one good way of viewing and solving the harmonization challenge. Please read Wright’s article first before continuing with my notes below.

Pastor Eric Peterman’s historical and Egyptology notes

AIG’s David Wright presents a good solution to the challenge of interpreting the various, seemingly disparate passages relating to the length of time the Israelites were in Egypt. Others scholars present different solutions, some of them good ones. I agree with David Wright and Henry Ainsworth that from the time of Jacob and his family (75 descendants in all per Stephen, Acts 7:14*) being moved to Egypt by grand vizier Joseph, under orders from Pharaoh, to the time of the Exodus is about 215 years. Within just over two centuries the population of Hebrews in Goshen, Egypt, grew to at least a couple million, as the number of fighting men alone (not including the Levite men) was 600,000.**

This solution makes sense to me as it maintains a high view of the inerrancy and sound hermeneutics of the Scripture, harmonizes the various texts, is consistent theologically, and interacts fairly well with what we know about Egyptian chronology and ruling dynasties.

The Exodus is firmly pinpointed at 1446BC by conservative scholarship. The date of the Biblical Exodus-Conquest is clear. 1 Kgs 6:1 and 1 Chr 6:33–37 converge on a date of 1446 BC for the exodus and the Jubilees data and Judges 11:26 independently converge on a date of 1406 BC for the beginning of the conquest. The 1406 BC date is further confirmed by archaeological data from Jericho, Ai (Kh. el-Maqatir) and Hazor.

A Hyksos rather than a pure-blood Egyptian Pharaoh

This proposed view would require the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day, the one who promoted him to grand vizier, to be a Hyksos (asiatics from southern Canaan) rather than pure-blood Egyptian. This promotion would have been 224 years before the Exodus, so 1670BC. The Hyksos were foreign invaders who overran Egypt in the 17th century BC, establishing two contemporaneous dynasties. The 15th dynasty (1674-1567 BC) of the great Hyksos kings dominated the Hyksos vassal chiefs of the 16th dynasty (1684-1567 BC). The xenophobic Egyptians called these kings “rulers of foreign lands,” in Egyptian, “hega-khase”, which Greek authors later rendered as “Hyksos,” which Josephus later mis-translated as “shepherd kings.” For this Josephus-induced reason, some scholars mistakenly believed the Hyksos to be the Hebrews, although there is no archaeological basis for this assumption. It is likely they were city dwellers from southern Canaan (later called Palestine by the Romans).

The period of the rule of the Hyksos was peaceful and prosperous for Egypt. They respected the native religions, maintained ancient Egyptian as the official language of the government, and allowed many Egyptians to serve in the high levels of the administration of the state. The Hyksos taught the Egyptians new military techniques and introduced the use of the horse and chariot, which figures into the later Exodus experience (Ex 14 and 15).

The Pharaoh of Joseph being Hyksos rather than Egyptian may serve to explain:

  1. Why he was so willing to accept a non-Egyptian as grand vizier.
  2. Why he was willing to give land in the fertile, strategic, sacred land of Goshen to Jacob and family. The Hyksos would not have been religiously attached to that land.
  3. Why there was an extended funeral for Jacob in Canaan by the court of Pharaoh. Since the Hyksos were from that general area and certainly maintained ancestral ties, this would not be a surprise.
  4. It would also explain why another Pharaoh, an Egyptian, came along later (Exodus 1:8), and had a strong, xenophobic and resentful reaction to so many Israelites living in sacred and verdant Goshen, and decided to enslave rather than partner with them. First, he would want to reverse any contrary decree of the former Hyksos. Second, the connection of the Egyptians to the land was ancient, theological (the various gods) and their own belief in joint resurrection with Pharaoh as the son of Re demanded a pure land, not polluted by foreigners, especially those connected in various ways with the Hyksos.

No solution is without its challenges and problems, but a solution must deal with the Biblical text as true and accurate, and the other data must fit to it. External evidence must illuminate, not eliminate the meaning of the Holy Writ.

*For discussion of the texts that state a minor variation in the number of descendants entering Egypt with Jacob, read, How Many Members of the Family of Jacob came to Egypt?

** 600,000 fighting men: Exodus 12:37. The population of Hebrews grew rapidly, by God’s providential blessing (Exodus 1:7), and could have been several million. With a starting population of 75, and assuming each family having 8 children, 3/4 of which lived to reproduce, and each couple getting married and starting to reproduce at 20 years of age, the population at the end of 215 years would be around 4.4 million. One can adjust these numbers, but the population growth among the Hebrews to produce 600,000 fighting men and their families as claimed in the Bible is quite reasonable.



Updated 6/2017