Times and Seasons

Part 5. The Sojourn in Egypt

The period between the entry of Jacob and his family into Egypt and the Exodus under Moses is known as the sojourn in Egypt. During this time the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons grew into a nation of some two million people. They went down as a family; they came up a nation. It is from this time that the history of the people of Israel begins.

The sojourn in Egypt lasted for four hundred years. There is no connected history of the period. Between the death of Joseph and the birth of Moses is a blank and were it not for three casual allusions, in Genesis, Exodus and Acts, it would not be possible to determine from the Scriptures just what interval of time did elapse. But these three references do afford all the information that is necessary.

When the Lord told the patriarch Abraham that his descendants would ultimately possess the land in which he had settled, He also made it known that before inheriting it they would sojourn awhile in an alien land. "Know of a surety" He said "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" (Gen.15:13‑16). Two significant facts emerge; one, that the sojourn would last four hundred years, and the other, that the return would take place in the fourth generation. With the modern idea of several generations to a century in mind these statements would seem irreconcilable, but this is not the case. In the days of Abraham, when men lived well beyond a century and children were being born at anything up to 120 or so, a hundred years was a reasonable figure for a generation. Isaac, for example, was born 230 years after his grandfather Terah. One consequence of this was that a much greater number of generations were living simultaneously than is the case nowadays. It can be shown that at the time of the Exodus members of the fourth to the eleventh generations were living and participated in the departure from Egypt under Moses. The four hundred year period is confirmed by Stephen at his trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:6) quoting from this passage in Genesis.

The other relevant statement is in the story of the Exodus, where Exod.12:40‑41 reads, in the A.V., "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". There would seem to be a discrepancy of thirty years between this and the former statements, but this can be resolved by a little investigation. Both the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Alexandrian Septuagint render this verse "the sojourning of the children of Israel (and of their fathers [Samaritan Pentateuch only]), which they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Chanaan (Canaan), was 430 years." (LXX margin) This dates the commencement of the "sojourn", not at the entry into Egypt, but at the time of Jacob's arrival at Bethel in Canaan on his return from Padan‑Aram about thirty years earlier. His twelve sons were the "fathers" of these renderings: "our fathers" is the expression used to denote them by Stephen in Acts.7:11. Confirmation of this comes from Paul's words to the Galatians in Gal.3:17 "The covenant that was (previously) confirmed before of (by) God, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul…". (The words "in Christ" are a late intrusion into the text and should be omitted.) It is clear that Paul was either quoting from the Septuagint, as he so often did, or that the Hebrew text of his day contained the additional phrases which it has since lost so that the A.V. omits them in consequence. The "covenant" therein mentioned is obviously the original one made with Abraham and the "law" is the second covenant, made between the Lord and Israel at the time of the Exodus. The "confirmation" referred to is certainly something other than the original making of the covenant with Abraham, and it does seem very well to fit the occasion recorded in Gen.35:1‑15 when God met with Jacob at the sacred site of Bethel, reiterating and confirming the terms of the covenant and assuring Jacob that he and his seed would assuredly be its inheritors. The chronological indications in Genesis are reasonably conclusive that this event took place in Jacob's 100th year, thirty years before he went down into Egypt.

It has sometimes been suggested that the 430 years should be counted from the departure of Abraham from Haran 215 years before Jacob entered Egypt, so that the combined "sojourning" of the elder patriarchs Abraham and Isaac could also be included. Against this it has to be recognised that there was no covenant existing at that time. Not until many years later, when Abraham was 86, was there talk of a covenant, and its terms were not fully stated until he was 99. There is no reasonable starting point for the 430 years so far back.

Some additional support for this claimed "short" period of 215 years in Egypt is provided by the apparent pedigree of Moses derived from certain passages in Exodus and Numbers, from which it would appear that Moses was Levi's great‑grandson. To fit this into the 400 year period requires that Moses and his forebears were each born when their fathers were 125 years of age, which, whilst not completely out of the question in the light of conditions indicated by the Scriptures as prevailing at that time, is in the highest degree unlikely. Hence the 215 year period is sometimes advocated as the only one to which this pedigree can be fitted. This situation will be examined in greater detail presently but it can be said here and now that a much weightier argument in favour of the 400 year period is the impossibility of the stated number of Levites appointed to the service of the Tabernacle being derived from the three sons of Levi in just four generations. This in turn is associated with the known number of the adult male population at the time of the Exodus, and the question naturally arises as to whether the Scriptures contain sufficient data to estimate sufficiently closely the time required for the twelve sons of Jacob to grow into a nation of that size.

From its very nature the result of the calculation must be taken with a certain amount of reserve, but its implications are interesting, especially in the light they throw on the manner in which apparently casual and unconnected remarks in the text present, in association with one another, a strong testimony to the factual accuracy of the narratives. This accuracy can only be accounted for by accepting that these early books were actually written at the era with which they deal, and not, as the "modern scholarship" still loves to claim, a thousand years later by priestly scribes gathering scraps of folklore and legend out of which they constructed the story. The essential data is as follows:

  • The census conducted by Moses a few weeks after leaving Egypt showed that the number of adult males above 20 years of age was 603,550 (Exodus 38:26).

  • The number of Levites, descendants of Levi, aged between 30 and 50, for the service of the Tabernacle, was 8,580 (Num.4:48).

Jacob's twelve sons fathered 51 sons between them, an average of a little over four per family. From various genealogies and casual allusions the families of another 31 individuals of later generations show a similar average of four per family, falling off slightly in the generation of the Exodus. The span of life was anything up to 137 (Levi and Amram [Samaritan Pentateuch only]); Moses and Aaron 120 and 123, Joseph 110; probably a century would be a good average. (This was the accepted expectation of life in Egypt at the same time.) It can be deduced from the narratives that births were normally between the early thirties and late seventies, so that so far as can be discerned from the accounts the four sons and four daughters of each average family were born over this period.

On this basis a rather tedious but illuminating calculation shows that the 51 grandsons of Jacob would have grown in 400 years to some 600,000 men above 20 years of age, and the Levites between 30 and 50 to some 8,200, both of which are remarkably close to the actual figures recorded in Exodus and Numbers, as stated above. Too much stress must not be laid on this, since a quite small difference in the basic assumptions, average children per family, for example, or the influence of possible epidemics during the sojourn carrying away numbers of Israelites, could make an appreciable difference to the result. The calculation does at least support the accuracy of the 400 year alternative as against the 215. To attain this number of grown men at the Exodus in 215 years would require that every man had 18 children and this between the ages of 20 and 60, which, while not physically impossible, is unlikely, especially in that period of history, and has no supporting indication in Scripture. Neither would it be possible to attain the 8,580 Levites between 30 and 50; the best that could be attained in 215 years would be 3,600 which is much too far away from the Scriptural figure.

There is, though, one apparent argument for the 215 years in Egypt, viz; the Authorised Version statement that Jochebed the mother of Moses was the daughter of Levi. This, if correct, would make Moses the grandson of Levi on his mother's side and imply an extremely short period between the entry to Egypt and the Exodus. Several times Moses is said to have been the son of Amram, husband of Jochebed, and it has been tacitly assumed on the strength of these statements that Amram son of Kohath, son of Levi, is the individual referred to. A little thought shows that this cannot be the case. The male descendants of the four sons of Kohath, (Amram and his three brothers) numbered 8,600 at the Exodus (Num.3:27‑28) and by no stretch of the imagination could it be thought that Moses had something like 2000 brothers. The genealogies do not make clear that Amram the father of Moses was a different individual living several generations later. This points to the necessity of a closer examination of the relevant texts.

Exod.2:1 says that "a man of the house of Levi, took to wife a daughter of Levi". "Daughter" is bath, which is used for daughter, granddaughter or female descendant. (Example Josh.17:6—"daughters of Manasseh" although their father was Zelophehad.) The parents of Moses were both descended from the line of Levi but in what generation is not here stated.

Exod.6:20 has it "Amram took him Jochebed his father's sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses." "Father's sister" here is dodah, which means an aunt—father's sister or uncle's wife. The Septuagint gives a variation "Ambram (Amram) took to wife Jochabed (Joshebed) the daughter of his father's brother" i.e. his cousin. This may be thought a little more reasonable than the A.V. "aunt" although at that time when so many generations were contemporary the aunt in one family could well be considerably younger than the cousin in another. Nevertheless no indication of the particular generation in Levi's line is given.

The most difficult text is the third, Num.26:57‑59; "Kohath begat Amram. And the name of Amram's wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, whom her mother bare to Levi in Egypt: and she bare unto Amram Aaron and Moses, and Miriam their sister". The Hebrew text is admitted to be faulty; the words "her mother" do not exist and were supplied by the A.V. translators to help out what they thought was the sense. In their place the Hebrew has atha which could be a second personal pronoun but then implies that Jochebed "bare" herself to Levi which is an absurdity. The alternative, favoured by a number of responsible scholars, is that "atha" is a proper name, that of the mother of Jochebed. The expression "bare to Levi" could then mean that this Atha bare Jochebed to a husband who was of the line of Levi so that the child was accredited to its more remote ancestor, a practice met with elsewhere in the Scriptures, generally when for some reason it was not desired to mention the intervening generations, or they were not known. Another and more likely explanation is that the unknown father of Jochebed was himself named Levi, after his illustrious ancestor. There are at least three other individuals named Levi mentioned in the Bible, and this extra one is not out of place. It would not occur to the historian to explain that the Levi to whom Atha bore Jochebed was not the famous progenitor of the tribe several generations earlier.

The literal Hebrew in this text runs "Amram's wife was Jochebed, a daughter (descendant) of Levi whom damsel Atha bare to Levi (asher yaldah atha le‑Levi) in Egypt". This verse, together with the other two referring to Moses' parents, is consistent with the conclusion that Amram the father of Moses was a descendant of Kohath in probably the fourth or later generations, married to Jochebed who was a daughter of an unnamed descendant of Levi, (perhaps also named Levi), married to the otherwise unknown Atha. The purpose of Num.26:59, set as it is in the middle of an account of the census of Levites taken just before entering the land, is clearly to establish the legality of descent of Moses and Aaron from Levi the father of the tribe. The expression in vs.58 "Kohath begat Amram" can quite as reasonably apply to his later descendant, the "second Amram", father of Moses, despite the fact that one of his own sons had the same name.

This still leaves the fact that Exod.6:20 does read as if Amram father of Moses is presented as identical with Amram the son of Levi and this should be considered before leaving the subject. An examination of Exodus chap.6 reveals the very strong probability that verses 14‑27 are an insertion by a hand other than Moses, at a much later date, intended to establish the lineage of Moses and Aaron at a time when the fact might be called into question. "These are that Aaron and Moses, to whom the LORD said, Bring out the children of Israel....These are they which spake to Pharaoh" say verses 26‑27, as if to impress the point. Certainly these words are not from the hand of Moses and must have been added after his death. Verse 28 connects very naturally with verse 13. At verse 14 the unknown reviser starts off by recapitulating the list of tribal heads of Israel given in Gen.46 but after recording Reuben, Simeon and Levi he diverges to record Levi's posterity down to Moses and Aaron's grandson Phinehas. He never went on to include the remaining tribal heads, his purpose now having been served. His information regarding Moses must have been taken from Num.26:59 which was part of the official census taken just before the entry into the land, and he might have taken too literally the "Kohath begat Amram" of vs.58, just as has been done in more recent times, and so confused the two Amrams.

The LXX rendering of Exod.6:20 which makes Jochebed the niece of Amram's father rather than his sister as in the A.V. is in complete harmony with the relationship indicated in Num.26:59 [NIV & NLT translations ‘a descendant of Levi’] and this could lead to the supposition that the original Hebrew from which the LXX was taken asserted this relationship. In such case, since Moses.80 at the Exodus, must have been born not earlier than the 4th generation and could have been of any one to the 9th, there must have been at least one and probably several generations between Amram the son of Kohath and Amram the father of Moses. On the basis of one generation only the elder Amram could have had one son, unnamed, father of the second Amram, and another one named Levi, father of Jochebed. This arrangement makes sense of the apparently conflicting texts and puts Moses' mother where she rightfully belongs, at the end of the sojourn in Egypt rather than at the beginning. The accompanying diagram illustrates the possible position.

Generations Levi
born in Egypt
1st Amram
2nd Unnamed
3rd      Unnamed         Levi m Atha 
  ┃                      ┃
4th    Amram    m   Jochebed
5th Miriam    Aaron     Moses

Considerable light can be shed upon the sojourn in Egypt by contemporary Egyptian history but the details of this require a separate treatise in itself. Modern research has quite clearly established that the Exodus took place during the 18th Egyptian dynasty, in or near the year 1453 B.C. and that Amenhotep II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. This date is demanded also by the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 to the 4th year of Solomon so that it can accepted as Scriptural. The record of Exodus fits in very accurately to the political events of this period. Jacob entered Egypt near enough to 1853 B.C. during the 12th Egyptian dynasty which came to an end about the time of the death of Joseph. A century later came the Hyksos invasion from Syria which gave Egypt its 15th and 16th dynasties, bitterly resented by the native Egyptians but, since the Hyksos were themselves of Semitic race, probably welcomed by the Israelites with whom they would have felt some kinship. Then about 1600 B.C. came the successful rebellion against Hyksos rule which expelled them from Egypt and restored native Egyptian Pharaohs, the 17th and 18th dynasties. It would be only natural that the victors would look with disfavour upon the alien Israelites who were racially akin to the defeated Hyksos. This could have been the time indicated by Exod.1:8 when "there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph", the "new king", if actually an individual, being one of the early rulers of the 18th dynasty, perhaps Thotmes I (Thutmose), father of the Princess Hatshepsut, the "daughter of Pharaoh" who took the child Moses out of the Nile. This brings Moses' forty years in Midian within the reign of the famous Thotmes III (Thutmose), Pharaoh of the oppression, the only Pharaoh of the period whose reign was long enough to cover that forty years, and whose death occurred only a few years before the Exodus, so that everything fits. The Biblical claim that the Israelites were 400 years in Egypt is thus quite feasible and more probable than any alternative when viewed in the light of Egyptian history.

To be continued