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?

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    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 '16 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 '16 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 '16 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 '16 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 '16 at 13:47


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 '16 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 Taylor Mar 28 '16 at 15:22
  • Deuteronomy was written during the Iron Age (1200-500BCE). From the perspective of writing, the reference is not anachronistic. – Dick Harfield Mar 28 '16 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 Taylor Mar 29 '16 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". – René Nyffenegger Aug 27 '16 at 8:40

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