Gen. 15:13

Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.

And then in v. 16

In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

Is there a connection between the four hundred years sojourn in Egypt and the fourth generation returning to Canaan? This question has been inspired by this question. There Phil suggests a provocative idea that the four generations are actually the equivalent of four hundred years, since in the biblical framework a generation (or more specifically an Abrahmic generation) is thought to be the equivalent of a hundred years. Phil believes that this explains how the four generation prophecy has been fulfilled, while I take issue with it and offer another solution. But then it struck me that it may actually be the other way around, i.e., if Phil is right in suggesting that a generation is a hundred years, then is it possible that the four hundred years is actually modeled after the four generations, i.e., that the four hundred years of Egyptian bondage is another expression of the four-generations-in-bondage prophecy? I'm inclined to think that it's modeled this way and not vice versa, since the fourth generation motif is a common motif in the bible, and can also be found in the ten commandments, so it makes sense that if there is any modeling after, that the four generations prophecy (i.e. that the iniquity of the Amorites has not reached full measure until the fourth generation) would precede the four hundred years prophecy.

This may possibly resolve the age old Egyptian sojourn chronology problem, since if four hundred years only meant four generations then the fact that it was less than four hundred literal years (but four literal generations) should not pose much of a problem, since the four hundred years were never meant to be taken literally, but as another expression of the four generation prophecy which was indeed fulfilled, see here. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My question is has such a connection ever been explored? Is there evidence to suggest that a generation in the bible is the equivalent of a hundred years, and is it plausible that the four hundred years were understood by the biblical authors as four generations and nothing more?

The only problem I can see here is that understood this way, the four generations prophecy would in a way undermine the four hundred years prophecy. Since according to v. 16, the fourth generation is already returning to the land, whereas according to v. 13 the Israelites would be in bondage for four hundred years, i.e., four complete generations. This problem is actually very similar to the problem I raise with Phil's answer here. There are ways to resolve this (and the problem with Phil's answer), but I'm leaving this question open for now, awaiting the feedback of the community.


The 400 years and the four generations are not the same time periods, but they do fully overlap. The additional time period which overlaps both the 400 years and the four generations is that of the 430 years referenced in Exodus 12:40-41:

"Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt." (Exodus 12:40-41)

What challenges many people in understanding these passages, ironically, is the definition of "Egypt." At its zenith, during the times of Abraham, "Egypt" was a vast empire that included the lands of Canaan and Israel as well. It afterward got smaller, and by the time Jacob took his family to "Egypt", he "entered" a much-reduced territory which still pertained to Egypt--entering from what, in his grandfather's day, had been part of Egypt as well. In a sense, then, the family, which had already been in Egypt, "re-entered" the land, even though they had never actually left that territory from the time of Abraham onward--its political boundary had simply receded from them.

With that in mind, let's look more closely at the times again.

The 400 Years versus the 430 Years

To Abraham had been given the promise:

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. (Genesis 15:13-14)

When was Abraham given this promise? He received this promise before he had had any children, so the clock on the four-hundred years' prophecy could not possibly have started yet. In fact, this was a special promise to Abraham because it confirmed to him that he would have a child.

How old was Abraham when he entered "Egypt"?

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. (Genesis 12:1-4)

It was at that time, when Abram was 75 years old, that, having left Haran, he entered "Canaan", at that time annexed by Egypt. So the 430 years' reference dates from Abraham's entry into Egypt.

How old was Abraham when he had a son?

"And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him." (Genesis 21:5)

So, his "seed" (Isaac) was born to him 25 years after his entry into "Egypt". But when did the affliction or bondage begin? It did not begin yet when Isaac was too young to be exposed to anyone much beyond his mother's arms. But when Isaac was five years old, a weaning party was held for him:

"And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac." (Genesis 21:8-10)

Notice that Isaac was bullied by "the son of Hagar the Egyptian." As Abram had been sojourning in Egypt, the hired maid whom Sarai had given him for the role of surrogate mother, had been Egyptian. And it was at this point that the prophecy's 400 years began, for at this point the "affliction" part had begun. The years of "bondage" were yet future.

The Four Generations

"And God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob. And he said, Here am I. And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation: I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again: and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes." (Genesis 46:2-4)

During the famine, when Jacob, at Joseph's special invitation, had brought all of his family into "Egypt," the count began on the four generations. We can see those generations recorded in the Bible. While all of Jacob's sons are mentioned, we'll follow the line of Levi:

"And these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons: Reuben, Jacob's firstborn. . . . And the sons of Levi; Gershon, Kohath, and Merari." (Genesis 46:8,11)

"And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari: and the years of the life of Levi were an hundred thirty and seven years. . . . And the sons of Kohath; Amram, and Izhar, and Hebron, and Uzziel: and the years of the life of Kohath were an hundred thirty and three years. . . . And Amram took him Jochebed his father's sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses: and the years of the life of Amram were an hundred and thirty and seven years. . . . These are that Aaron and Moses, to whom the LORD said, Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their armies. These are they which spake to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt: these are that Moses and Aaron." (Exodus 6:16, 18, 20, 26-27)

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. (Exodus 2:21-22)

Summarizing those verses we have:

Jacob   --> The patriarch who brought his children and 
            grandchildren to "enter" (re-enter) Egypt;
Levi    --> Entered Egypt, Jacob's son;
Kohath  --> Entered Egypt, the first generation,
            Levi's son;
Amram   --> The second generation, Kohath's son; and
Moses   --> The third generation, Amram's son, 
            who led the Israelites back out of Egypt.
Gershom --> The fourth generation, Moses' son,
            representing the generation brought out of Egypt.

The total time from entry into Egypt to departure in the fourth generation may have been around 215 years--half of the 430-year total from Abraham's first entry to the exodus. But the time for actual hard bondage (slavery) would have been closer to 90 years--just under a century. We know that Moses was 80 years old at the time he led the people out of Egypt, and the Israelites had been in bondage during Moses' entire lifetime at that point, plus a few years before he was born.

Remember, it was not until after the time of Joseph (after the second generation, post-entry), that the slavery had begun--by an Egyptian king who had not known Joseph. In other words, the slavery began during the third generation, post-entry, and ended when the fourth generation departed in the exodus.

  • I'm not really sure how you addressed my question. In any case, your assumption that the 400 year prophecy starts from Abram is highly speculative and contested (and I think is false) See for example this link sites.google.com/site/calendarstudies/exodus-6-16-20 where the author explains and proves that the 400 most probably started from the time Levi first went down to Egypt (which really makes sense, since the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt continued non-stop since Levi entered Egypt, as opposed to Abram which had Isaac and Jacob that were all over Canaan and Mesopotamia). – Bach May 13 at 14:23
  • @Bach Time prophecies are useless if they do not specify their endpoints. A 400-year prophecy with no definite time to start is not really a 400-year prophecy anymore--it's just a vagueness. But the prophecy specifies its start point. It must begin with Abram's seed being either in affliction or in bondage. As the affliction came first, that's where it starts, and the clock is then ticking toward its finish, which must not exceed 400 years in total. Isaac was first afflicted by an Egyptian at his weaning party--the Bible makes this clear. – Polyhat May 13 at 18:48
  • @Bach In reading some from that site I've realized a mistake I'd made in the genealogy. It is true that Jacob entered Egypt, but it is also true that Levi entered Egypt with him. So the reckoning should start, not with Jacob, but with his sons as the first generation. I'll update my answer accordingly. – Polyhat May 13 at 19:07

The bible didn't say that Israelites would be in captivity for 400 yrs. "And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt AND THE LAND OF CHANAAN, was four hundred and thirty years." (Septuagint original text book of Exodus 12:40.) You have to include the travels in Canaan.

  • 1
    Sam tzu you are not following the MT but the Septuagint, which to many scholars is less accurate than the MT. The MT does not have this addition. – Bach Sep 7 '20 at 18:13
  • 1
    And your point is? Since all of the scriptures that remain are translations from the original text that Moses probably wrote in middle-egypt or kush the Septuagint is THE oldest and closest to the original text transcribed by Joshua to ancient Hebrew. (Since they way Hebrew was written has changed at least three times in past 3 thousand years it has little resemblance to current Hebrew). The best we can do is try to find the obvious attempts at censorship and fix those. – SamTzu Sep 8 '20 at 12:15
  • No. Wrong. The best we can do is try to find a way to reconcile the texts that seem irreconcilable; relying on the LXX in this case would be an injustice to the MT. Besides, as I already pointed out, the MT I think was better preserved than the LXX which has been edited and expanded by many people. – Bach Sep 8 '20 at 19:44
  • See also this principle of textual criticism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_difficilior_potior – Bach Sep 8 '20 at 19:49
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    @NihilSineDeo ok no point in arguing, you have already made up your mind. – Bach May 14 at 18:02

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