The 430 Year Gap

article by Shlomo Moshe Scheinman
The Nile River
         The Nile River

Biblical Commentaries are bothered by what appears to be a 3-way contradiction within the Biblical text concerning the amount of time the children of Israel spent in Egypt.

In Breishit (Genesis) chapter 15, at the covenant of the pieces (in Hebrew pronounced as Brit Ben Habetarim) G-d informs Avram, whose name years later will changed by G-d to Avraham (Abraham) the following Divine decree (as translated by the Jerusalem Bible published by Koren) concerning the future course of history:

"Know surely that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land 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 afterwards 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 back here, for the iniquity of the Emori is not yet full. And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. In the same day the L-rd made a covenant with Avram, saying, To thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Mizrayim {Egypt} to the great river Perat {Euphrates}: the Qeni, and the Qenizzi, and the Qadmoni, and the Hitti, and the Perizzi, and the Refa'im, and the Emori, and the Kena'ani, and the Girgashi, and the Yevusi".

In Shmot (Exodus) chapter 12 we have what appears to be a slightly different chronology.

"And the children of Yisra'el {Israel} journeyed from Ra'ameses to Sukkot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds very much cattle. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought out of Mizrayim, and could not delay, neither had they prepared for themselves any provision.  Now the sojourning of the children of Yisra'el, who dwelt in Mizrayim, was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even on that very day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the L-rd went out from the land of Mizrayim.

In a third source, namely, Shmot (Exodus) chapter 6 it is implied that the nation of Israel spent less time in Mizrayim (Egypt) than the 400 years implied by the prophecy to Avraham and certainly less time than the 430 years implied by the previous source, that I quoted. In Shmot (Exodus) chapter 6, we learn that that the grandfather of Moshe (Moses), Qehat (Kehat) lived 133 years and the father of Moshe lived 137 years. Moshe, himself was 80 years old when he appeared as G-d's prophet before the king of Mizrayim (Egypt), with the demand to let the nation of Yisra'el (Israel) go from the land to serve G-d (Shmot / Exodus 7:7).

Elsewhere in the Bible we are informed, that the grandfather of Moshe, namely, Qehat (Kehat), was one of the 70 members of the family of Yisra'el, that first entered the Egyptian Exile. Now if you do the math of adding 133 years + 137 years + 80 years, you arrive at 350 years, as a maximum time for the descendants of Yisra'el (Israel) in Mizrayim (Egypt). And within these 350 years you also have to deduct the years of overlap, where both Qehat (Kehat) and Amram lived at the same time and so too, the years of overlap, between the lifetime of Amram and the 80 of Moshe (Moses). 

Ramban in his commentary to Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 provides 2 explanations to explain the 3 sources that seem to contradict. The first is the view of Rashi, which Ramban points out, is also the view of the rabbinic sages of old. This view contends that our forefather Avraham was 70 years old when he experienced, the covenant of the pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) in the land of Israel. From that point in time until the exodus from Mizrayim (Egypt) 430 years elapsed which are the years alluded to by Shmot (Exodus) chapter 12. Avraham then left Israel and 5 years later at age 75 came a second time to the holy land. At age 100, 30 years after Brit Ben Habetarim, Yitzchak (Isaac) is born to Avraham and from the time of Yitzchak's birth, the 400 years mentioned in Breishit (Genesis) chapter 15, begin by virtue of the fact that he was Avraham's seed, who had the status of a stranger. Since only 210 out of the 400 years of the prophecy were spent in Mizrayim (Egypt) this explains, why the life span of Qehat and Amram together with the 80 of Moshe to do not add up to 400 or more than 400 years.

After explaining, the view of Rashi and the rabbinic sages of old, Ramban adds a more simple, literal explanation (Pshat) of the Bible to explain why there is no contradiction between Breishit (Genesis) ch. 15 and Shmot (Exodus) ch. 12. That the 400 years mentioned in the covenant of the pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) was an approximation and really the exile was decreed for 430 years. The indication according to Ramban that the 400 years was an approximation and not exact figure is that G-d added the words, "But in the fourth generation they shall come back here, for the iniquity of the Emori is not yet full".  

Ramban however, in his commentary, to Shmot (Exodus) ch. 12, verse 42, seems to backtrack on his view that the four hundred years in the covenant of the pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) was just an approximation and concludes that additional sins committed by the Jews in Egypt, were the reason for the extra 30 year delay of exile. Although Abarbanel in his commentary to Shmot (Exodus) ch. 12, as well as Kli Yakar (Shmot 12:40) agree with this last viewpoint of Ramban, I have at least one objection. If G-d made an oath that 400 years from the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac) the Jews would no longer be strangers in a land not theirs, then he is obligated to keep that oath. If the Jews at that time deserved punishment, they could receive it in a way that would not violate the oath. Indeed, our sages, tell us that during the ninth plague, the plague of darkness (while the Egyptians were unable to view what was occurring to the Jews), four fifths of the nation of Israel were put to death by G-d because of sin (see for example, Rashi, to Shmot 13:18, Mechilta D'rabbi Yishma'el, Mechilta D'rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Pesikta D'rav Kahana, Yalkut Shimoni). The more virtuous fifth of the nation survived and shortly afterward were liberated from exile.

One possible defense for Ramban is to contend that a longer exile was a "better" punishment, than the alternatives available to punish the sinners of the 12 tribes of Israel; and as long as it was feasible to contend that the 400 years of subjugation of the seed of Avraham to foreign rule was just an approximation, G-d used this as an excuse to lengthen the exile. But the real reason for the extra years of exile was sin.

Afterwards I found that Rabbeinu Bachayei also extends the exile to 430 years, from the birth of Yitzchak instead of 400 years, but he does not attribute the extra 30 years to sin. Instead, he claims (as so claims, Rabbeinu Chananel) that for 30 years out of the 430, the seed of Avraham did not face affliction and for the other 400 years, they did.

Some commentaries take the approach, that the 430 years mentioned in Shmot (Exodus) chapter 12:40 were not literally 430 calendar years, but rather the equivalent of 430 years of intense pain. So for example, Meam Loez brings an explanation that Miriam the sister of Moshe, was called by that name, because when she was born the exile became extremely bitter (the first 2 letters of her name, spell out the Hebrew word for bitter). 

Miriam was born 86 years before the Exodus and since only one fifth of the Jews came out of Egypt, while four fifths died, G-d multiplied by five, the years of suffering, which results in 430 years. In the viewpoint of Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, the intense suffering of the exile, only doubled the time that the Jews were considered to be in Mizrayim (Egypt). Now if we start from the birth of the sons of Yoseph (Joseph) 215 years before the Exodus (5 years before the brothers of Yoseph arrive in the country) and double this by two we arrive at 430 years.

Now although the last two approaches work mathematically, I prefer to find an explanation of the text that involves less tampering with the simple meaning of the words. If one however, is not bothered by this issue, I refer the reader to Yonatan Ben Uziel's commentary to Shmot 12:40 as well as the responsa of Maharam of Rottenberg, Vol. 4, siman 514, for other creative solutions to explain the 430 years of Shmot (Exodus) 12:40.

How to Answer a Problem That Can Be Raised Against Rashi, Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachayei That I Cited Above

Although Rashi, Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bachayei all find a solution how to consider the exile as having lasted 430 years, they do not directly answer, why Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 only singled out Mizrayim (Egypt) as being the country of exile. According to all 3 commentaries cited above only about half of the 430 years of exile actually took place in Mizrayim (Egypt).

A commentary cited by Ibn Ezra, claims that the other countries of exile were vassal states of Mizrayim (Egypt). Ibn Ezra felt uneasy about accepting this claim, since he did not find sufficient proof in the Biblical text to verify it.

A second way out of this problem is to rely on the principles of biblical interpretation of Rabbi Saadia Gaon. As discussed in Maamar/article 7 in Emunot Ve'deot, when 2 or more Biblical verses seem to contradict, Rabbi Saadia Gaon allows the reader to assume, that the Bible is implying that we add a word (or concept), that is not explicitly stated in the text to resolve the contradiction. Gur Aryeh suggests that the implied Hebrew word to add to Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 is the word באחרית which means in English "at the end". In other words Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 should be interpreted as if it said, "Now the sojourning of the children of Yisra'el, who dwelt in Mizrayim at the end, was four hundred and thirty years. Gur Aryeh adds that Mizrayim (Egypt) is stressed because the main fulfillment of the decree of the exile was there.

Malbim in his commentary to Shmot (Exodus) chapter 12 suggests a third approach. He said it a mistake to translate the Hebrew word ומושב as a reference to time. The word as used elsewhere (see Vayikra/Leviticus 25:29) in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) refers to a place of settlement and not a time of sojourning. The correct translation of Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 should therefore be: "And the settlement place of the children of Yisra'el, who dwelt in Mizrayim, was four hundred and thirty years". That is to say that during the time of the covenant of the pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) 430 years before the exodus, the place where the Jews would eventually be exiled to, namely, Goshen in the land of Mizrayim (Egypt) was first set up and settled by other people. The settlement lasted for 430 years and was destroyed when the Jews left the country (see Rashi's commentary to Shmot 11:9, Shmot 14:25 for a possible source, that indeed the Goshen settlement was destroyed, during the miracle of the splitting of the sea). In other words, Malbim is telling us that along with Divine Decree of exile for the seed of Avraham (Abraham), G-d was also actively involved in determining what type of residence would house the nation of Israel, during their "final stop" in the exile.

In principle I agree, with Malbim's approach of trying to deduce the proper translation of Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 by comparing the Hebrew words that appear jointly in this verse and in Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:29. However, I should point out that the way the word is used in Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:29 is in context of a law that applies exclusively to the land of Israel (see Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot, Pos. Commandment 139, Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzva 341). Therefore, I would not explain Shmot (Exodus) 12:40 as a reference to the settlement place of Goshen, but rather it is reference to the land of the covenant that was 430 years old at the time of the Exodus.

To explain this point I have to provide some background information. The Torah warns the nation of Israel in Vayikra (Leviticus) chapter 26 that if they violate severe prohibitions of the Torah, they will be exiled from the land of Israel. However, there will be a limit to that exile. And one reason for this limitation is stated in verse 42: "And I will remember my covenant with Ya'akov (Jacob), and also my covenant with Yitzchak (Isaac) and also my covenant with Avraham (Abraham) will I remember; and I will remember the land". Sifra (on Bechukotei) comments, "From where can we deduce that there is a covenant with the land? For Scripture states, And I will remember the land".

Abarbanel picks up on this point that redemption from exile can come to the nation of Israel for the sake of the covenant with the land of Israel. As he states in his book, Mashmia Yeshua,(in the section Mevaser Tov Hashlishi, Nevuah 13):

And the prophet recounted that the Holy One Blessed be He would come to save them, either based on the fact that the chosen land is in the hands of her enemies, and the Holy One Blessed be he wants to redeem her, as it is stated (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:42), "And I will remember the land" or based on the nation, which is his nation and heritage that is sitting among enemies. And regarding the matter of the land he stated: "for the sake of Tziyone (Zion) I will not hold my peace and for the sake of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) I will not be still" (Yishayahu/Isaiah 62:1); for Tziyone hints at the Temple and Jerusalem to the city in its entirety. He will say, my thought shall not be calmed for the sake of Tziyone (Zion) and Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), until her righteousness goes forth like radiance, and her salvation like a burning torch" (Yishayahu/Isaiah 62:1).

Given this introduction, we can now understand that when the Torah states: "And the settlement place of the children of Yisra'el, who dwelt in Mizrayim, was four hundred and thirty years" in Shmot (Exodus) 12:40, it is basically saying the land of the covenant required after 430 years that the children of Yisra'el, who dwelt in Mizrayim be liberated from exile for the sake of saving the land from control by the 7 evil nations of Canaan. And who would be involved in the liberation of the land? Not all the seed of Avraham, but rather the children of Yisra'el, who dwelt in Mizrayim. Which is coming to exclude the seed of Eisav (Esau) who is called a heretic of Yisra'el (Kiddushin 18a) as well as the children of part of the tribe of Ephraim, who left Mizrayim, many years earlier than the exodus and were massacred (or at least most of them) by the Plishtim (Philistines) of Gat (see Divrei Hayamim {Chronicles chapter 7 verse 21 together with commentary by Radak and see Malbim, who makes the same point 2 sentences earlier than Radak did and see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak and Metzudat Dovid to Tehillim {Psalms} 78:9 for a similar idea). According to one opinion in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 92b these victims of the massacre are the dry bones that were brought back to life via the prophet Yechezkel/Ezekiel as mentioned in Yechezkel/Ezekiel chapter 37. That viewpoint in the Talmud understands those victims of the massacre had miscalculated the time of the redemption and therefore chose a strategy to take the land of Israel that wasn't fitting for them. 

The fact that those who stayed in Egypt had a much deeper connection to the land of Israel than those who had left too early is also reflected in the laws of inheritance of the land as recounted in the Bible regarding the daughters of Tzlophchad (Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 27), and as explained in Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura's commentary to Baba Batra 8:3 (see there for details).

A Final Point That Needs to be Addressed In Order To Defend Rashi's Viewpoint

The Bible clearly states (Breishit/Genesis 12:4)  that Avraham (Abraham) was 75 years old when he left Charan (Haran) to go to the Holy Land at G-d's command. Two chapters later, the Bible tells us that Avraham had a war with 4 Kings. Chapter 15 of Breishit (Genesis) in which the episode of the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) occurs, seems to have taken place after the war with 4 Kings, because the chapter starts, with words, "After these things".
To strengthen the question, Seder Olam Rabbah, upon which Rashi based his opinion about Biblical chronology, says in chapter 1, that Avraham's victory against the 4 Kings took place when Avraham was 75 years old. If so, how is it possible to contend that the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) took place when Avraham was 70 years old?

Chizkuni (in his commentary to Breishit/Genesis 15:7) answers that we have to break up chapter 15 of Breishit/Genesis into two parts. Verses 1 to 6 of the chapter take place after Avraham's war against the 4 Kings, while the rest of the chapter took place 5 years earlier, when Avraham was 70 years old at the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim). One proof that he brings to break up the chapter into two separate prophetic visions, is because the first 6 sentences of the chapter seem to be taking place during the night time when the stars are visible (see verse 5 of the chapter). While the end part of the chapter takes place when the Sun was going down (verse 17), which is earlier than the time that the stars emerge thus denoting that it was a separate vision.

For What Purpose Did the Bible Attach the Prophecy of Avraham at the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) to the Prophecy of Avraham after the War Against the 4 Kings?

During the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) Avraham (Abraham) made a statement that could be interpreted in a positive light or negatively. When G-d introduced himself in Breishit/Genesis 15:7, "I am Hashem (a nickname for the TETRAGRAMMATON name of G-d, which usually was uttered by its true pronunciation in the Temple) that brought you out of Ur-Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit it", Avraham (Abraham) responds (verse 7), "my master, Hashem, by what shall I know that I shall inherit it"? 

Rashi, in his commentary on verse 6, the final verse of the prophecy given to Avraham after the war against the 4 Kings explains why does this verse stress that Avraham believed in G-d. This is to provide a contrast of his reaction at that time to G-d's promise of seed, where he did not ask for a sign, to his reaction at the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim), where Avraham showed a lack of belief, and demanded that G-d provide a sign, to prove his commitment. In other words, the statement (verse 7), "my master, Hashem, by what shall I know that I shall inherit it", was a negative statement by Avraham.

Then Rashi adds another interpretation to the statement, "my master, Hashem, by what shall I know that I shall inherit it." According to the 2nd view, Avraham's response at the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) was not an expression of a lack of faith. Rather he wanted to know, through which merit would his seed be preserved in the land. G-d answered him through the merit of sacrifices. As I understand Rashi, according to this second interpretation, Avraham's faith in G-d after the war against the 4 Kings is not meant as a contrast to his lack of faith 5 years earlier. Rather, it is meant to prove that even 5 years earlier, Avraham had true faith and asked G-d, "by what shall I know that I shall inherit it", for a justified spiritual reason.

Conclusion

There is a 430-year-old gap between the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) and the Exodus, which can be explained logically. According to some opinions the 430-year-old gap is not from the Covenant of the Pieces (Brit Ben Habetarim) but rather from the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac) until the Exodus. The 430-year gap serves as proof that sometimes there is a large gap in time between a Biblical decree and its fulfillment.


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