Is there a reason provided in Genesis for the enslavement of the ancient Israelites for 400 years?:

Genesis 15:13 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;

Exodus chapter 1 reports how the Pharaoh felt threatened by the ancient Israelites and enslaved them:

Exodus 1:8-11 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, "Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.

However, we are led by Genesis 15:13 to believe that this was ultimately God's plan.

Does Genesis indicate that this was a punishment for some particular naughtiness on Abram's part or of the People or that there was a particular divine objective?

  • 3
    I'm not certain if this is on topic because it's sort of searching for a text, but if you start from Exodus 1 and still have a question (?), then it would be more obviously on topic.
    – Susan
    Mar 28, 2016 at 13:15
  • @Susan I debated asking in the other forum but what I was seeking was a better understanding of a particular text (Gen 15:13) so opted to put it here. I'll move it if I misunderstood the distinction between the sites. And thank you for helping me improve the question.
    – user10231
    Mar 28, 2016 at 13:27
  • I see. I didn't realize the primary intention was an understanding of Gen 15:13; thank you for the edits to clarify. Probably can drop the Acts reference.
    – Susan
    Mar 28, 2016 at 13:38
  • I edited this to focus it solely on the Genesis text (asking about the entire Bible or even entire Hebrew Bible is too broad). I also changed "Jews" to "ancient Israelites" to ensure it is focused on the original context and not a modern religious group. Asking about 'scripture' is too broad (first of all, what is "scripture"?).
    – Dan
    Mar 28, 2016 at 13:41
  • @Dan Any reason to limit it to Genesis rather than the Pentateuch? Authorship considerations seem to span the set, and given that the narrative of the events of interest are in Exodus, it might be helpful for references there to be admissible.
    – Susan
    Mar 28, 2016 at 13:47

4 Answers 4



The original Genesis passage quoted occurs in the context of God and Abram discussing God's promises for him:

"The Lord said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But Abram said, “O sovereign Lord, by what can I know that I am to possess it?” - Genesis 15:7-8 (NET)

Next begins a covenantal ritual between Abram and God, and the dream you're asking about occurs in between Abram setting up the ritual and God confirming it. The 'slavery' is foretold in the context of a proviso for God's promise to come to pass, rather than being explained as a punishment.

The enslavement of Israel in Egypt is nowhere depicted as a 'punishment' in the Bible, as far as I am aware, but rather something of a necessary trial planned for them. For Abraham, it was remarkable that his offspring should be made a nation, and to be given such a vast tract of land for his descendants - and God promises that a great nation will result, but that along the way there will be trouble:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.

"In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking firepot with a flaming torch passed between the animal parts. That day the Lord made a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” - Genesis 15:13-19


The first stated intention for the slavery in Egypt to happen is that the descendants would 'come out with many possessions' (v14), and this seems to be phrased in a positive light and not a negative one. The language of the passage doesn't obviously infer the events as a punishment.

The second stated intention is 'for the sin of the Amorites has not reached its limit', and in quick succession God lists ten tribes who currently inhabit said land. Abraham's people were to inhabit the land, but not for a long time, in such a time as it would be right for them to seize it.


Another angle on your question is to therefore ask why Abraham's descendants should be in another land until it is right for them to take the land. An inference of the text might be that Abraham will live in safety in the land, but for a period of time his descendants are not to have their own land. And if they aren't land-owners, they are necessarily nomads or slaves. In order for God to bring them into the land to take hold of it at the right time, the people must be put into an uncomfortable situation to prepare them for God's promises.

This fits well with the language Deuteronomy uses to discuss their place of slavery, and then Jeremiah by extension:

"You, however, the LORD has selected and brought from Egypt, that iron-smelting furnace, to be his special people as you are today." - Deuteronomy 4:20 NET

"Tell them that the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘Anyone who does not keep the terms of the covenant will be under a curse. Those are the terms that I charged your ancestors to keep when I brought them out of Egypt, that place which was like an iron-smelting furnace." - Jeremiah 11:3-4

  • I find some "irony" (pun to follow) in the fact that if the stay in Egypt was to give them possessions and to purify the people as iron from ore then it was kind of a flop in that the treasures they "borrowed" from Egypt were used to build the golden calf and almost every single person that came out of Egypt, including Moses were actually executed in the wilderness. Tangentially, aren't the Pentateuch's references to iron instruments anachronistic? smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/…
    – user10231
    Mar 28, 2016 at 15:17
  • @WoundedEgo - it's hard to know for sure about anachronisms with words quite that far back. If we only see it used in reference to 'iron' later on in history, that doesn't discount the word having an earlier usage, even if it may not be strictly the same material.
    – Steve can help
    Mar 28, 2016 at 15:22
  • Deuteronomy was written during the Iron Age (1200-500BCE). From the perspective of writing, the reference is not anachronistic. Mar 28, 2016 at 21:04
  • @WoundedEgo - ah, that's interesting too. There's an ambiguity in the phrase "an iron furnace" which makes it unsure whether they're talking about a furnace made of iron or a furnace made for iron. I'd always assumed it was the former, and hadn't noticed the NET rendered it differently.
    – Steve can help
    Mar 29, 2016 at 8:02
  • I always took Abrahams question how he knew that he'd possess the land (Gen 15:8) to be unbelief (shortly after the his faith of Gen 15:6 that counted to righteousness) and that this (new) unbelief caused God to punish His desendents. Had Abraham still believed in Gen 15:8, his desendents would have owned the land "more easily". Aug 27, 2016 at 8:40

The Israelite's enslavement in Egypt was not a punishment for some sin on their part. On the contrary, God originally brought the Israelites to Egypt to save them from a terrible famine. Joseph sums it up in Genesis 50:20: "But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive." God allowed the Israelites to be enslaved so that He could bring glory to Himself by demonstrating His authority and power through miraculously delivering His people and keeping His promises to them.

One reason He allowed the Israelites to be enslaved in Egypt was to show His power and His ability to keep His covenants. We should first note that God told Abram that his descendants would face enslavement back in Genesis 15:13-14:

And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is 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 afterward shall they come out with great substance.

God did not mention to Abram or to anyone else that the Israelites' enslavement would be a result of sin. He only foretold that it would happen and that He would judge the nation that enslaved them and deliver them.

In Exodus 3:19-20 God tells Moses, "And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go." Later in Exodus 7:3-5 God explains again:

And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.

God was using the terrible situation in Egypt to yet again work out something good to His glory. As we see later on, God continually refers to His mighty signs and wonders in Egypt to remind the Israelites of His power and integrity:

Exodus 20:2 - I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Exodus 29:46 - And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the LORD their God.

Leviticus 26:13 - I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that ye should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright.

Deuteronomy 5:6 - I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

Judges 2:1 - And an angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you.

God makes it clear that He intended for the miraculous deliverance from Egypt to be a great display of His power and a constant reminder of His integrity for His people. Although the Israelites were stubborn and stiff-necked, they still remembered and honored God and praised Him for His mighty deliverance regularly through the Passover feast. In the book of Joshua, we see that other nations also remembered the events of the Exodus and knew of God's power. When the Israelite spies went into Jericho, Rahab told them in Joshua 1:9-10 how her people were afraid of the Israelites because of what they knew God had done for them:

And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.

God used the Israelites' enslavement in Egypt as an opportunity to demonstrate His power and integrity to His own people and to all who would oppose them. The miracles God used to deliver the Israelites served as reminders of Who was on their side and helped pave the way for their future conquests by showing their enemies Who they were dealing with.

The Israelites' enslavement also served as prophetic foreshadowing. As we know, Jesus also lived in Egypt for a time. Matthew 2:13-15 says,

And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Matthew was, of course, referring to Hosea 11:1, in which God says, "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt." God also called Israel His firstborn son in Exodus 4:22:"And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn." Matthew 2:15 shows us that Hosea 11:1 is not only a retelling of historical events but also a prophecy of Christ's exit from Egypt. Joseph brought God's firstborn son Israel into Egypt to save it from a famine. Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, brought God's only begotten Son into Egypt to protect Him from Herod. Prophecy can't get more spot-on than that! This prophecy and its fulfillment serves as one of a plethora of prophecies identifying and confirming Christ as the promised Messiah. The narrative of Israel's enslavement and deliverance is also closely tied to the Passover lamb as a picture of Christ, which is another deep study all on its own.


Good question.

As you said, it is ultimately God's plan.

The Collective unconsciousness, acts like unconsciousness of one individual. The same for Consciousness, and the same for Sentiment.

Collective Consciousness acts like Individual Consciousness, and so for Sentiment.

The 400 years Slavery in Egypt was part as Correction for some generations of the Israelites, and part as implantation of Collective Sentiment, Collective unconsciousness and Collective Consciousness for the Israelites.

Look Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Levi 19:34, and Deuteronomy 10:19.

Exodus 22:21 (DRB):

Thou shalt not molest a stranger, nor afflict him: for yourselves also were strangers in the land of Egypt.

From the beginning, the wisdom of God demanded that the Older and the Stronger be enslaved to the Younger and the Weaker. Hence the Older protects the Younger.

But Sometimes the Weaker may be enslaved as a part of God's plan.

Look Genesis 25:23 (DRB):

And he answering said: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be divided out of thy womb, and one people shall overcome the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.

God was implanting in the Collective Consciousness of the Israelites the Compassion and Mercy.

Look Exodus 33:5 (DRB):

And the Lord said to Moses: Say to the children of Israel: Thou are a stiffnecked people; once I shall come up in the midst of thee, and shall destroy thee. Now presently lay aside thy ornaments, that I may know what to do with thee.

I hope my answer was helpful.


An proposal that has not been suggested yet in other answers: Abraham made a crucial error in his offering, just prior to God's telling him that his descendants would be made slaves:

In Gen 15, God says: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chalde′ans, to give you this land to possess.” Abraham asked for a sign, asking "how am I to know I am to possess it." God then instructs him:

Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

In this interpretation, the fact that the sacrifice was attacked by birds of prey signifies that God did not accept the offering. This idea if supported the mood of the next passage and its dire prediction:

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years.”

Abraham made two mistakes here: first he demanded a sign from God rather than accepting God's promise in complete faith. God may have provided that sign if Abraham's offering had been successful. As it turned out, the sign was a negative one -- the birds of prey--to polar opposite of the sign God provided (an angel) when He accepted Abraham's offering of Isaac in Gen. 22.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

If Abraham had responded in faith to God's promise in the first instance, perhaps his descendants would not have been made slaves. But in this case, as with Cain's offering in an earlier generation, God rejected the sacrifice, and Abraham's descendants paid the price.

Note: my personal view is that these were not historical events. But I do think this theory has merit in terms of the patterns of the biblical narrative.

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