How Long Were the Israelites Actually In Egypt?

This week’s Torah reading is Bo, chronicling the final events in the exodus from Egypt. We read about the final three plagues (locust, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn), the first Passover night, and at last, the liberation of the Israelites. Here, we are told that the Israelites left Egypt after having dwelled there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). However, Jewish tradition (based on counting up all the years mentioned in the Torah) holds that the Israelites were only in Egypt for 210 years! To further complicate things, God had prophesized to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). So, which is it? Were the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, 210 years, or 400 years? There appears to be a simple answer to this question, and is the one most commonly cited. However, upon closer examination, this explanation breaks down entirely, and the real answer becomes much harder to find.

The Simple Answer

'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts (1829)

‘Departure of the Israelites’ by David Roberts (1829)

Let’s begin with the simple answer. Rashi’s commentary on the verse in question is that the Israelites were indeed in Egypt for only 210 years, since this is the sum one comes to when counting the lifespans of Jacob, Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. According to this chronology, the Israelites lived prosperously in Egypt for 116 years. By this point, Jacob and his sons (the original immigrants) had all passed away, and a new pharaoh ascended to power in Egypt. Envious of Israelite prosperity and success, and suspicious of their populous numbers, the new pharaoh began instituting various anti-Semitic laws. Tradition holds that this period of segregation and persecution lasted 30 years, after which the Israelites were formally enslaved. Thus, the Israelites were slaves for 86 years. The year of their enslavement corresponds to the year of Miriam’s birth, hence her name, which literally means “very bitter”. Moses was born 6 years later, and liberated the Israelites when he was 80.

Rashi states that since 400 or 430 years in Egypt is impossible, one must assume that by “dwelling” and “sojourning”, the Torah refers to all the dwellings and sojourning since the time of Abraham. Rashi points out that if one counts back 400 years from the exodus, one comes to the year that Isaac was born. Another 30 years before that was when Abraham envisioned the “Covenant of the Parts”, and received the prophecy that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners for 400 years. Therefore, when the Torah states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, it is going all the way back to Abraham’s Covenant, which happened exactly 430 years earlier. And when God told Abraham his descendants would be slaves for 400 years, He literally meant all of Abraham’s descendants, starting with his first son, Isaac, born 30 years later. This explanation seems to work, at least when reinterpreting the definition of what it means to be “enslaved” and what it means to be “in Egypt”.

However, even Rashi is unhappy with this answer. He says that one has no choice but to accept this explanation al karchacha, literally “against one’s will”. He finishes by saying that this was one of the things that the Sages edited when translating the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy.

(Over two millennia ago, Ptolemy gathered 70 rabbis, put them in separate guarded rooms, and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. Despite their separation, all 70 rabbis produced the exact same translation, making the exact same amendments where necessary, to make the text more palatable to the Greeks. This text became known as the Septuagint, because of the 70 rabbis. According to Yalkut Shimoni, there were 72 rabbis, and they made 15 changes to the text, one of which is the duration of the Israelites’ dwelling in Egypt.)

The Problem with the Simple Answer

Aside from the fact that the Israelites were slaves for 86 years, not 400, and that the Torah states that they dwelled specifically in Egypt for 430 years, and not elsewhere, there is a much more pronounced problem with the simple answer. If we say that the 430 figure comes from the moment when Abraham first received the prophecy, that means that Abraham got it 30 years before Isaac was born, which means Abraham was 70 years old at the time (since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100). However, the Torah tells us that Abraham only came to the land of Israel for the first time when he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). Sometime after this, he descended to Egypt because of a famine, then returned to Israel. Years later, he participated in the war against the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14). It is only following this war that the Torah states, “After these things the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…” (Genesis 15:1). And it was in this vision that Abraham received the prophecy of 400 years. It is therefore impossible that he was 70 years old! In fact, the very next chapter speaks of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son through Hagar, who was born when Abraham was 86. Based on this, some commentaries suggest the Covenant of the Parts happened when Abraham was 85 or 86 years old.

So, we may accept the figure of 400 years starting with Isaac, but where did 430 come from? In lieu of a historical answer, we may have to delve into more mystical literature.

The Metaphysical Answer

In characteristic fashion, the Arizal sees the 430 figure not necessarily as a literal number of years, but as a figure hinting at something deeper. It is well-known that God has two primary names (among many others): the ineffable name of Hashem, which represents God’s kindness, and the name Elohim, which represents God’s judgement and severity. When it comes to the Exodus, God expressed His strict judgement. The Arizal (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) points out that there are five major expressions using the name Elohim with regards to the events of the Exodus. The numerical value of the name Elohim (א-ל-ה-י-ם) is 86. Multiplying 86 by 5, one arrives at 430. This figure, therefore, represents all of God’s severity, which was revealed in this time period. It was only after “430 years” – ie. only after God had fulfilled all of His plans – that the Israelites were finally liberated.

There is one final answer that may be the best of all, allowing us to take the 430 year timespan literally. The full passage in the Torah reads: “And the habitation of the Israelites that dwelled in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years, and it was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, that all the legions of Hashem came out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41). The Torah tells us that it was God’s legions of angels that finally left Egypt after 430 years. Thus, 430 years earlier, God had sent his angels to Egypt to prepare the way for the arrival of the Israelites. It was 430 years earlier that God had put His plan in motion. The Arizal might add that the souls of the Israelites destined to be born in Egypt were already dwelling there, so to speak, 430 years earlier. Whereas the Israelites physically dwelled in Egypt for 210 years, their spiritual habitation there – together with God’s Heavenly legions – spanned 430 years.

Beautifully, at each Passover seder we drink four cups of wine, and pour a fifth for Eliyahu. The numerical value of cup (כוס) is also 86. And so, the five cups total 430.