To best answer this, we want to look first at a more general time frame, by reviewing both Old and New Testament Scriptures. In Galatians 3:16-17, we read, “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to SEEDS,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘AND TO YOUR SEED,’ who is Christ. And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.”
Many believe that this should be reckoned from the first time that God expressed His intentions to Abram when he was 75 years old (compare Genesis 12:1-4). But there are two important points that we can glean from Paul in the Scripture above that will show that this may not be the case.
Firstly, he uses the name “Abraham” and not “Abram.” Abram was his name at the time God first talked to him in Genesis 12 as well as through the next 24 years of his life. This means that the first two covenants that God made with this man were during the time he was called Abram. In Genesis 15:18 we find the first covenant or agreement, and the second one is mentioned at the beginning of Genesis 17. Interestingly enough, in the first four verses of this chapter God makes the covenant with Abram and then in the very next verse He changes Abram’s name to Abraham (verse 5). Technically then, Galatians 3 is not citing one of the first two agreements with Abram, but rather referencing one of the subsequent covenants with Abraham.
(For further information on the covenants which God made with Abram or Abraham, please read our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound…”).
Secondly, the context of Galatians 3:16-17 was the covenant confirmed in “THE SEED”—Jesus Christ. This would therefore rule out the covenants God made with Abraham in Genesis 17, which included merely physical blessings for the SEEDS or descendants of Abraham, as well as the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:10; Acts 7:8). This is in no way related to what Paul was talking about. However, when we come to the final covenant in Genesis 22:18, we find something that was not previously promised, THE Seed. The verse reads, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
Acts 3:25-26 refers to this statement specifically as a covenant: “You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” It also clarifies that the Seed that would truly do all the blessing would be Christ.
This brings us back to Galatians 3:16-17 where Paul has reiterated the fact that the Seed is Christ. Therefore, when he writes “the covenant that was confirmed before by God IN CHRIST,” it seems obvious that it can only refer to the FINAL Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 22. This then gives us a starting point for the 430 years.
The 430 years in Galatians 3 are an allusion to Exodus 12:40-41 which states, “Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years—on that very same day—it came to pass that all the armies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.”
The problem that some often have with this passage is that they assume this is stating that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years. What it is actually saying is that the Israelites, the off-spring of Abraham, who had lived in Egypt, sojourned 430 years; they temporarily dwelt in several areas, and only one of them was Egypt.
According to the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary, the Septuagint renders it thus: “The sojourning of the children and of their fathers, which they sojourned in the land of Canaan and in the land of Egypt.” This naturally makes it clearer that the 430 years include time leading up to the beginning of the residency of the Israelites in Egypt. This can be further substantiated by the fact that the time between the commencement of the covenant until Jacob (who became Israel) and his family moved into Egypt was spent in many different places in the land of Canaan:
Immediately after the final covenant of Genesis 22, Abraham returned to Beersheba (Genesis 22:19); 37 years after the birth of Isaac, Sarah died and was buried in the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:1-2); Abraham was buried in Machpelah (Genesis 25:9) with Sarah (Genesis 49:31), and shortly thereafter Isaac moved to Beer Lahai Roi (Genesis 25:11), which, according to John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, was near the wilderness of Beersheba and Paran. In fact, we read in Genesis 26:1-6 that Isaac was specifically told not to go down to Egypt, but rather remain in Gerar. After a conflict with the locals, Isaac returned to Beersheba (Genesis 26:23). Years later, Jacob fled from Esau and went to Haran (Genesis 28:13), which was in Syria, the opposite direction of Egypt (Hosea 12:12).
After his time there, Jacob and his family (the Israelites) returned to his homeland of Canaan (Genesis 31:13, 18; 33:18). After the incident with his daughter Dinah, God directed Jacob to Bethel, still in the land of Canaan (Genesis 35:1). After moving around in that immediate area (Genesis 35:16, 21), Jacob later caught up with his father at Mamre or Kirjath Arba, where Sarah had died (Genesis 35:27). We read in Genesis 37:1 that at the time when Joseph was being sold into slavery, Jacob was still in the land of Canaan. This is also the area from where Joseph’s ten brothers came, when a famine affected them, forcing them to seek food in Egypt and eventually move there.
How do we understand Genesis 15:13 which quotes God as saying to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.”
Most commentaries agree that the time span of 400 years does NOT refer to the sojourning of Israel IN EGYPT.
Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible states:
“Four hundred years are to elapse before the seed of Abram shall actually proceed to take possession of the land. This interval can only commence when the seed is born; that is, at the birth of Isaac [that is, it cannot begin prior to that; but does not have to necessarily begin at that time, see our comments below] … During this interval they are to be, ‘first, strangers in a land not theirs’…; and then for the remaining… years in Egypt: at first, servants, with considerable privilege and position; and at last, afflicted serfs, under a hard and cruel bondage.”
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds:
“…this term ‘four hundred years’ is not to be joined either with the word ‘afflict’ or ‘serve’; for their hard servitude and severe affliction did not last [that] long…; but with the phrase, ‘a stranger in a land not theirs’; and the rest is to be included in a parenthesis thus, and ‘thy seed shall be a stranger in the land not theirs (and shall serve them, and they shall afflict them) four hundred years’; so long they should be strangers and sojourners, as they were partly in the land of Canaan, and partly in the land of Egypt, neither of which were in their own land, however not in possession; within which space of time they would be in a state of subjection and servitude, and be greatly afflicted and oppressed, as they were particularly by the Egyptians before their deliverance from them…”
We have seen, then, that it is very well documented that before the Israelites moved to Egypt, they had sojourned in and around the land of Canaan. The other significant fact in Exodus 12 is that the 430 years ended on the same day that the Exodus began. By examining these preceding two sets of Scriptures in Galatians 3 and Exodus 12, it appears that the 430 years refer to the time span between the execution of the final covenant with Abraham (in Genesis 22) and the moment when the Israelites left the enslavement of Egypt.
In this context, we need to discuss the ages, as they are recorded in the Bible, since they formulate a significant length of time. We know that the age of Jacob, when he and his family entered Egypt, was 130 (Genesis 47:9). Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born. How old was Isaac at the time of Genesis 22 when Abraham was about to offer him as a sacrifice and God subsequently made a final covenant with Abraham?
The Bible does not give enough information to pin down Isaac’s exact age with any reasonable accuracy. What we do know is that the event occurred between the time that Isaac was weaned and when his mother died. At that time, Isaac was approximately 37 years old (compare Genesis 21:8; 23:2). However, many scholars do not agree on the age of weaning (stating that it occurred somewhere between the ages of 2 and 5, and even then they are just making an “educated” guess). There are other factors that may or may not come into play in narrowing down Isaac’s age at the time when Abraham was willing to sacrifice him, but we will leave it as a broad spectrum to ensure that we are within the parameters as outlined in the Bible.
In all likelihood Jacob was not exactly to the day 130 years old when he arrived in Egypt, nor is it likely that Jacob and Esau were born to Isaac on his 60th birthday. This fact can be readily confirmed, when reviewing other biblical genealogies, where the month is omitted – much in the same way that adults speak today when telling their age. This being the case and depending on their rules of rounding ages in ancient times, the final number we are looking for could be off by several years, depending on whether we add together the actual or rounded ages.
From this information we can calculate the duration of how long the Israelites dwelt in Egypt. We need to subtract from 430 years (the length of time from the final covenant with Abraham until Israel LEFT Egypt) the length of time from the final covenant until ENTERING Egypt. The formulas (since we are using a range for Isaac’s age of 3 to 37 years) are:
By adding and subtracting up to 3 years to each end of the solution (to compensate for any extra months not included in the ages of Isaac and Jacob), it would appear that the Israelites were in Egypt for somewhere between 240 to 280 years. While men such as Dr. Bullinger, in his Companion Bible, and Bishop Usher’s dating set the time span at 215 years for the children of Israel being in Egypt, other researchers do offer different conclusions; however, most chronologies seem to conclude that both the 400 years of Genesis 15:13 (also, Acts 7:6) and the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 (also, Galatians 3:17) refer to the more general period, encompassing time on both sides of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt.