The Torah portion that we read on the first day of Passover tells us that “the habitation of the children of Israel, that they dwelled in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.” (Exodus 12:40) The Torah makes it quite clear that the Israelites spent a total of 430 years residing in Egypt. However, the accepted tradition is that the Israelites only spent 210 years there. This is the number derived by counting up the ages of all the people from one generation to the next. However, it contradicts the peshat reading of the Torah. To make sense of this, the Sages offered various explanations.
The classic answer is that the 430-year period is counting from the time that God decreed to Abraham that his progeny would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). That prophecy was relayed 30 years before Isaac was born, and the 400-year period began with the birth of Isaac. This is neat, except that the Torah says explicitly that the children of Israel—meaning the descendants of Israel (Jacob), which obviously does not apply to Isaac—literally dwelled in Egypt for 430 years. Moreover, Isaac did not live in Egypt (or any other foreign land for that matter), so he cannot be included in the prophecy!
There is really no good way to get around the fact that the Israelites must have spent a total of 430 years in Egypt (though we’ve explored other possibilities in the past here, where we also examined Rashi’s frustration with the problem). What if, for just a moment, we accept that value of 430 years? If we do, we find that everything actually makes a lot more sense:
Abraham had received a prophecy that his descendants should expect to be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years, and the Israelites knew this, of course. Then, they saw how 400 years in Egypt had passed and there was still no salvation. Their emunah was crushed, and when Moses arrived 30 years later they had a difficult time accepting it. It explains why the Israelites were so downtrodden and resistant to Moses (see, for example, Exodus 5:21). It also explains why so many of them had accepted the faith of the Egyptians (our Sages state that only a fifth of the Israelite population was saved, the rest perishing with the Egyptians whose ways they adopted). It provides a better explanation for the well-known teaching that a portion of the Tribe of Ephraim left Egypt on their own 30 years earlier but failed to make it to Israel (see, for example, Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 226). Why 30 years? Because they had calculated that 400 years passed and they should be leaving already! Lastly, it explains why it got to a point where God had to “remember” Israel, as we read:
And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-5)
The language implies that a very long time had elapsed (bayamim harabim hahem); yet another pharaoh had come and gone, and still the Israelites were in bondage. The prophesied period had passed and it seemed God had forgotten them, so they cried out even more desperately. It was then that God remembered, as if He had overlooked His own decree. God saw His people once again, heard their cry, and He “knew”. What did He “know”?
Perhaps it means that He knew how the prophesied time period had indeed passed, but He needed the Israelites to wait just a little longer. (An analogy that comes to mind is when a child complains to a parent about the unfairness of some situation and oftentimes the natural response of the parent is to start with “I know…”) Altogether, the language in the passage above does not fit with the notion that Israel should have been in Egypt for 400 years but God brought them out way early after just 210 years. The implication is quite the opposite: Israel was overdue for salvation.
The simplest reading of the Torah must be that the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt, and when salvation didn’t come after 400 years as expected, they had given up hope—which then made their eventual redemption so much greater. We can relate in our generation, having waited so many centuries, and having gone through so many miscalculations and false messiahs in our history. It is understandable why a large number of people today have given up on the idea of a messiah, and no longer really expect him. Our ancient Sages saw it coming, and stated that Mashiach will come totally by surprise, as if no one will expect him at that time (Sanhedrin 97a). Having said that, the very same page of Talmud says Mashiach must come by the year 6000.
How do we make sense of all of this? Here’s one possible (radical?) solution:
If the Israelites really did spend 430 years in Egypt—as the Torah states—and not 210 years—which is derived by way of calculation—it would change everything. This is because the traditional Jewish dating system is based on the 210 figure, and so the current year is given as 5780. But what if we plug in 430 years in Egypt instead of 210? That means we would have to add those missing 220 years. In that case, our current year is not 5780, but actually 6000!
Have we really reached the deadline for Mashiach’s coming? Could this be how our ancient Sages concealed the true timing for the End of Days? In light of what we saw a couple of weeks ago about Coronavirus and the Coming of Mashiach, particularly the months of redemption being between Nisan and Tishrei, maybe this is it. The next half-year or so will tell.