The Duration of the Egyptian Exile

Introduction

What was the length of the Children of Israel's stay in Egypt? This question has ramifications for understanding the Egyptian bondage and its backdrop, as well as the development of the Israelite nation.

Explicit Verses – 400 or 430 Years

The Torah explicitly addresses this issue in two places, first when the slavery is originally foretold and a second time upon its conclusion:

These verses seem to imply that the duration of the exile in Egypt was either 400 or 430 years.

Four Generations

Other scriptural evidence, however, points to a much shorter period of time. The subsequent verse in Bereshit 15:16 states that already the fourth generation will return to the land of Israel, and four generations rarely span 400 years.1

Moshe's Paternal Lineage – Three Generations From Levi

Additionally, Shemot 6 and Bemidbar 26 provide Moshe's lineage from both his paternal and maternal sides, and each of these appears to support a much shorter time frame. On Moshe's paternal side, his grandfather Kehat lived for 133 years and his father Amram lived to be 137 years old. As Kehat was one of the seventy souls who came down to Egypt with Yaakov,2 taking the sum of his and Amram's entire lifespans together with Moshe's own age of 80 at the time of the Exodus,3 we arrive at a maximum total of only 350 years from the descent to Egypt until the Exodus.4

Moshe's Maternal Lineage – Two Generations From Levi

Moshe's maternal lineage creates even greater difficulties, as the Torah records that his mother Yocheved was a daughter of Levi, thereby implying that the three generations of Levi, Yocheved, and Moshe spanned the entire sojourn in Egypt. However, since Levi was approximately 43 years of age when the tribes came down to Egypt,5 even granting that Yocheved might have been born to Levi in the year of his death (at the age of 137), her birth would have occurred after the Israelites had been in Egypt at most 94 years. On the other hand, we also know that Moshe was born exactly 80 years before the Exodus. Thus, in order to reach a total of 400 (or 430) years in Egypt, one would need to assume that Yocheved was at least 226 (or 256) years old(!) when she gave birth to Moshe.

In Exegetical Approaches we will explore how various commentators resolve the larger contradiction between the explicit 400/430 numbers and the much lower figures indicated by Moshe and Aharon's lineage, as well as the smaller discrepancy between the 400 and 430 numbers themselves.

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