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New Math? (Galatians 3:17)

Paul teaches something that probably has not given many people pause:

This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. (Galatians 3:17; ESV)

Paul teaches that the law of Moses was given (came, introduced) 430 year later. Later than what? Verse 16 shows us that the subject Paul is talking about is the promise given to Abraham.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one,  “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16; ESV)

So, the law of Moses which was given at Sinai was given 430 years after the promise of the seed was given to Abraham. Now, this is a potential problem to the chronology of the Old Testament. You may have been taught, like myself, that the time the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt was 430 years. This teaching comes from Exodus 12:40 –

The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. (Exodus 12:40; ESV)

There is no way to reconcile these two statements at face value. According to Paul, the time from the promise of Abraham, plus the life of Isaac, plus the life of Jacob, plus the time Israel lived in Egypt, plus the time to arrive at Mount Sinai to receive the law was 430 years. But Exodus says that Israel was enslaved for 430 years.

I have been greatly disappointed in the number of scholars that have overlooked this problem. The NKJV seems to be the only translation to recognize the issue and do something about it. Notice how the NKJV renders Exodus 12:40 –

Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. (NKJV)

This rendering gives us the room we need to reconcile the two passages. The NKJV describes the “sojourn” rather than the time lived in Egypt. The sojourn can refer to the time from Abraham until the exodus. The other translations do not allow the room for interpretation and reconciliation of the texts. Now, I will have to leave it to the Hebrew scholars as to the merits of the NKJV and its treatment of Exodus 12:40.

The problem persists in Acts 7:6. Some translations make it sound like the sum total of the time in Egypt was 400 years, while others do not. Compare the difference:

And God spoke to this effect–that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. (Acts 7:6; ESV)

“But God spoke to this effect, that his DESCENDANTS WOULD BE ALIENS IN A FOREIGN LAND, AND THAT THEY WOULD BE ENSLAVED AND MISTREATED FOR FOUR HUNDRED YEARS. (Acts 7:6; NASB)

Notice that the NASB (also NKJV) allows for the 400 years to include the time that they would be aliens in a foreign land (that is, the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob living in Canaan as foreigners). But the ESV and other translations make the 400 years apply only to the time of the enslavement in Egypt.

To say that the Egyptian slavery of Israel lasted 400 years does not seem accurate. If the period of slavery in Egypt was 400 years, then Paul was simply wrong in his calculations, which those who accept the Bible as God’s inspired word cannot accept. Taking the 430 years and subtracting the years for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob gives us a time of about 215 years as the time of slavery in Egypt. Proper renderings of these texts allows for reconciliation and still maintains the integrity of the enslavement and exodus from Egypt.