Several months ago, Calvary Bible Church hosted “Ask the Pastor Sunday.” The congregation could submit questions before this Sunday about anything dealing with Bible knowledge, theology, and practical Christianity.
Though challenging, this is always a fun Sunday …. And there is always too many questions to cover in one session.
So, I told the congregation and myself that I would use those excess questions to fill my blog. My goal was one question a month. However, it has been two months and no blog post. Whoops!
Well, let us rectify that by studying the first question.
If the reader is interested in dates and figures, he or she will quickly become frustrated in trying to follow timelines in the Old Testament. So many dates don’t seem to match! To add insult to injury, when trying to compare those timelines to what is recorded for us in the New Testament, even more confusion seems to arise.
We know that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself so how do we resolve the apparent contradictions?
The length of time that the Israelites were in Egypt is a case in point.
Let us look at two passages:
Exodus 12:40–41 (NIV)
Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt.
Galatians 3:16–17 (NIV)
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
The question can be seen as follows:
Moses, in Exodus, records the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, from when Jacob’s entire family entered Egypt to when Moses led them out.
Paul, in Galatians, records 430 years from Abraham’s call to when the Law is given (one year after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt). This would include 215 years between the call and Jacob’s arrival in Egypt, leaving only 215 years for Israel to be in Egypt.
There are two possible resolutions to this:
Genesis 46:1–4 (NIV)
So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.
2 And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
3 “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. 4 I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
When Paul referred to the promises spoken to Abraham and his seed, he was referring to the promises spoken to the seed: Jacob. Incidentally, Genesis 46 happens when Jacob is in Egypt, marking the beginning of the sojourn in Egypt, paralleling the timeline in Exodus 12.
Before Jesus was on earth, the Jews commissioned a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint (The word means 70, referring to the 70 translators who worked on the manuscript).
This translation, when translated, reads:
the sojourn of the children of Israel, during which they dwelt in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, was 430 years,
Notice that the Septuagint adds “in the land of Canaan” which would include the time of Abraham and would parallel Paul’s apparent timeline.
Which possibility is correct?
I tend to favor the first possibility for several reasons, including:
These facts point to a sojourn of 430 years, meaning Paul was referring to the reaffirmation of the covenant to Jacob, rather than the original giving of the covenant.
When studying Galatians, however, we must realize that Paul isn’t trying to create a specific timeline. He isn’t crunching numbers and creating source citations. His point is that God gave the Law some four hundred years after the covenant. During all those years, before the Law, God’s promise to Abraham was in effect.
Reconciling dates and timelines is a fun and useful pastime. But, we cannot let that pursuit detract from the theology of the passage: God's grace apart from the works of the Law.