The ‘480 Years’ of 1 Kings 6:1: Just a Symbolic Number?
A year ago we posted an article examining the question of the dating of the Exodus and Israelite entry into Canaan—the standard debate over an “early,” 15th-century b.c.e. Exodus, versus a “late,” 13th-century b.c.e. Exodus—and making the case for the former. For both sides of the debate, there is a general acceptance of the reigns of kings David and Solomon and the construction of the temple in the first half of the 10th century b.c.e. Thus, from this starting point, one of the most oft-referenced verses tracing the timeline back to the Exodus is 1 Kings 6:1:
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.
Hence the literalist, “early” position that the Exodus took place during the 15th century b.c.e. (And as we also covered, this timeframe does not just stand on its own, but goes together with several other biblical passages, such as the statement by the pre-monarchy judge Jephthah that Israel had been in the land to that point for “three hundred years”—Judges 11:26.)
One of the chief arguments for proponents of a late Exodus during the 13th (or even 12th) century, however, is that the “480 years” of 1 Kings 6:1 is simply a symbolic or generational number. After all, it is the multiple of 12 x 40—both numbers that are some of the most significant, and oft-repeated, in the Bible.
Is the timeframe of 1 Kings 6:1 therefore simply symbolic, to be taken as non-literal?
This is the position, for example, held by brilliant scholars Dr. Joshua Berman and Prof. James Hoffmeier (himself formerly an adherent to the 15th-century Exodus, as in the video clip below). The former’s book, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, is in many points a fascinating treatise in defense of the authenticity of the biblical record, as well as those who hold it in reverence.
In seeking to explain 1 Kings 6:1, Dr. Berman opines that it is “not possible [archaeologically] to reconcile a conquest of the land by Joshua on any scale before [the 13th century b.c.e.]” (something we address in the round in our above-mentioned article. We also review the primary scripture used for a late-date, 13th/12th century b.c.e. Exodus—Exodus 1:11—here). As such, Berman writes:
The figure of 480 years indeed measures time, but in a non-literal way. In the third century b.c.e. the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament] was translated into Greek in Alexandria, producing what is known as the Septuagint …. One way or another, we discover that in I Kings 6:1, the Septuagint states that King Solomon commenced work on the Temple 440 years after the Exodus from Egypt. Why would a different version of the Tanakh read 440 years rather than 480? (pp. 33-34)
Clearly, neither 480 nor 440 fits with a 13th-century Exodus. Instead, Berman highlights the centrality of the number 40—both figures are multiples of 40, and they also have a precise difference of 40 years—and makes the case that 40 must simply represent a generational number. (For example, note the 40-year curse of wandering in the wilderness, in order that all older generations would perish—as well as the 40-year reign of David and the rule of certain judges for either 40 or 80 years.) “This,” states Berman of 1 Kings 6:1, “could be the prophetic book’s way of stating that they ruled for a generation.”
Berman bolsters his position by pointing to 1 Chronicles 5:30-36 (1 Chronicles 6:3-10 in most English translations), which lists the priestly genealogy through to the building of the temple (see right). “Phineas’s son, Avishua, was the first generation born after the Exodus,” Berman continues.
Counting the generations from there, on the basis of 1 Chronicles 5:30-36, it emerges that Azaria ben Yohanan, who served as the kohen [priest] in Solomon’s Temple, was the twelfth generation following the Exodus. The figure of 480 years between the Exodus and the beginning of work on the Temple may be a way of stating that twelve generations had passed, where forty years stands as a trope for a generation.
Regarding the 440 years of the Septuagint, Berman posits that the author of this variant “may have believed that although Azaria served as the kohen gadol [high priest] when the Temple was completed, work on the Temple commenced during the lifetime of Azaria’s father, Yohanan, which is to say 11 generations after the Exodus, which would be expressed as 440 years.” He adds:
Here, too, we may see how the Tanakh embellishes a text by using numbers in a non-literal fashion.
Looking at all the evidence provided in this section, some may ask: Why does the Tanakh not express its messages more clearly? … Why not state in I Kings 6, simply, that Solomon built the Temple twelve generations after the Exodus?
Berman concludes by stating that though these “modes of expression are not intuitive for us,” we would “do well to adopt the intellectual and religious humility” to accept that the “time and place in which the Torah was given employed a different literary aesthetic than the one that was intuitive for [a more modern audience].” He gives an example:
[O]ur children and grandchildren will look back at us in wonder at how we could not see things that to them are so clear and obvious; their children and grandchildren will express the same wonder about them. It is only by letting the text speak to us on its terms rather than ours that we can properly engage the meaning expressed to us by our holy texts.
Professor Hoffmeier similarly asks and concludes the following (from a Christian perspective): “The question is, can one treat the 480 years figuratively and retain an evangelical view of Scripture?
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy affirms, “In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of the penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.” It continues, “So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.”
It’s a conclusion, though, that somewhat rings hollow. And it is a position that, despite being held by many mainstream biblical scholars, has several difficulties. Prof. Ronald Hendel—himself no believer in the accuracy of the Bible’s account—does makes an interesting observation about this sort of reworking of biblical numbers to “fit” (emphasis added):
[The 480 years] is unambiguous biblical testimony for the date of the exodus. Yet distinguished evangelical scholars will fiddle with this date, since it does not correspond with what archaeological and historical evidence tells us about the time of Israel’s emergence [a highly debatable statement, but nevertheless]. … The biblical chronology is wrong, but the faithful scholar can correct it. …
In my view, this concession to historical and archaeological evidence is admirable. But it is also a departure from the plain sense of the Bible …. Identifying the Bible’s errors and replacing them with historically plausible reconstructions is a curious strategy for evangelical scholars. It clearly departs from the traditional doctrine of inerrancy. (“The Exodus as Cultural Memory View.”)
Hendel’s statement, of course, reflects his own perspective on the historicity of the biblical Exodus account. But it is also a logical reflection of the impression made when those attempting to demonstrate Bible historicity “fiddle” with the biblical timeframe. As early-Exodus proponent Dr. Scott Stripling commented on Hendel’s view (while strongly disagreeing with his claims against historicity): “Hendel rightly points out an inconsistency in the hermeneutical approach of evangelicals who embrace biblical inerrancy yet advocate for an exodus date other than in the fifteenth century bc” (“Response to Ronald Hendel (The Fifteenth Century Exodus View).”)
As the earlier-cited Professor Berman rightly admonished, “let the text speak to us.” 1 Kings 6:1 reads, “In the four hundred and eightieth year.” Not, “the twelfth generation after the children of Israel were come out of Egypt” (which it could very easily have done—after all, in the lead-up to the Exodus, the Bible spells out the number of generations that would pass—Genesis 15:16). Not, obviously, “twelve times forty.” (Perhaps one could try to make the case that certain individual 40-year blocks are used as a rounded figure for a generation. But the number 40 is nowhere spelled out in this passage.) Rather, this verse reads, four hundred and eighty years (or in the biblical Hebrew manner of counting, 80 years and 400 years). Was it 480 years, or was it not?
Explaining 480/440 years as generational symbolism is one thing. It leaves out, however, reason for the similarly long judges-period numbers, which also must be somehow explained away, and especially the 300 years of Jephthah (a sum with no connection to the number 40). For his part, Professor Hoffmeier necessarily holds the view that Jephthah’s statement “could be a case of hyperbole that is intentionally exaggerating the time in order to strengthen his dispute with the Ammonites.” And similarly, he reasons that the internal numbers of rule in the book of Judges are hyperbolic. (You can read an example of Hoffmeier’s arguments in his 2007 article, “What is the Biblical Date for the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood.”) Hoffmeier adds these numbers up back-to-back to reach an estimated total of 633 years, to highlight how they do not fit with the 480-year period anyway.
Of course, the natural explanation is that there is some degree of overlap in these oppressions and judgeships: They took place within entirely different geographical regions within Israel, and the Bible never states that they all follow directly one after another. In fact, just the opposite—Judges 10:6-7, for example, reveals that the Ammonite oppression (described in Judges 10-12) and Philistine oppression (Judges 13-16) occurred concurrently, with the Philistine oppression long recognized as ending during the judgeship of Samuel (in 1 Samuel 7:6-14). Hoffmeier, by confining everything in back-to-back-to-back lineup, therefore artificially extends this period by at least an additional 109 years. Still, debate about concurrent periods aside, again, the overall much larger numbers all only fit with the early Exodus timeframe.
Coincidentally, just last week “On Script” published a podcast episode titled “Early or Late Emergence of Israel,” with the panel arguing for a late-date Exodus and conquest. Regarding this overall long period of time attributed to the judges period, it was asserted that “Josephus and the Septuagint really didn’t understand how the system worked,” to properly interpret what should be seen as “symbolic” years from the Exodus to the building of the temple. (After all, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus also ascribes a similarly long period, though his numbers appear to fluctuate from as few as 480 years to as many as 612 years—still, all only possible in the realm of an early Exodus date.) It was stated on the podcast that Israel during the decentralized judges period “would not have had the ability to account for these long passages of time,” so such figures could not have been known (arguably an indictment against the prophet Samuel, who is traditionally thought to have written the book of Judges).
As for the judge Jephthah’s apparent knowledge about how long Israel had been in the land? “I throw Jephthah out altogether—he’s a blubbering idiot,” one of the individuals said, citing Jephthah’s later rash vow that ended in tragedy (Judges 11:30-40). “So I don’t think he’s a credible source, and I don’t think holding to ‘inspiration’ requires us to say, ‘Oh, Jephthah said it, it must be true,’ any more than we should think that what the devil tempts Jesus with is a proper use of Scripture.”
Such a statement will be extremely controversial. Nevertheless, it wasn’t made clear as to why a poor decision made later on, in the moment of battle, should cause us to doubt Jephthah’s knowledge about how long Israel had dwelled in this particular plot of formerly Ammonite territory (especially given the level of other detailed minutiae that Jephthah provides, as to exactly how this territory was captured—Judges 11:14-27). Are we to cherry-pick the 300-year verse in Jephthah’s speech as the singular “untrue bit,” among the 12 other verses of his correspondence that are thoroughly substantiated elsewhere in the Bible? And besides, what would Jephthah have gained by lying to the Ammonite king? This was all information that the king would undoubtedly have been aware of.
Naturally, the implicit need to explain away so many consistent biblical references as hyperbole (at best, idiocy at worst) raises a red flag.
The Generations From the Exodus
There are also problematic nuances with counting the generations in 1 Chronicles 5 (or Chapter 6, depending on the Bible translation). The verses cited mention a total of 15 generations (including Aaron) from the time of the Israelite departure from Egypt. To get to the number 12 requires a degree of interpretation (i.e. starting the count only from Phineas’s son Avishua for the “first generation born after the Exodus”). And here we run into an issue: 1 Kings 6:1 states that this time period began from the time of the Israelite departure from Egypt (when the 15th generation Aaron was, of course, still alive)—not from the birth of the first generation sometime after that Exodus. And it states that the count ended with the very specific date (the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign) of the commencement of building the temple—not whenever the 12th generation, Azariah, began to serve as priest within the completed temple.
This explanation of counting only 12 generations out of the 15 that are here outlined from the time of the Exodus is, therefore, an interpretatively selective count. As is the explanation that the Septuagint’s 440-year count must have for some reason ended with the generation before the completion of the temple (thus 11 x 40—not to mention that this emphasis on the biblically insignificant number 11 takes some wind out of the sail of the symbolism theory). Suffice it to say here that the Septuagint is widely recognized by Jews—and many Christians, too—as a corrupted Greek text within which certain numbers were, according to later Jewish commentators, “changed for King Ptolemy.” Nonetheless, again, both numbers (480 and 440) point in at least relative unison to an early date. (The 40-year discrepancy in the Septuagint’s count could perhaps be explained as simply omitting the Israelites’ 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. Or, probably more likely, it could center on a certain particular 40-year debate in connection to the reign of Saul, based on a certain Hebrew ambiguity/fragmentary record in 1 Samuel 13:1—compare with Acts 13:21. Based on these scriptures, there is a debate as to whether Saul reigned as few as 2 years or as many as 42 years. The Septuagint evidently recognized this ambiguity in 1 Samuel 13:1 as early as the second century b.c.e.—and omitted this verse entirely!)
All that aside though, perhaps the biggest killer for the priestly generational number lies in the very following verses. These verses of 1 Chronicles 6 continue to describe the 19 generations of Kohathite Levites descended from Korah, from the time of the Exodus to the time of David (verses 18-22 in the jps; verses 33-37 in most other English Bibles). If the Exodus really was in the 13th century, then depending on where the start date is counted from, that would mean each new generation among this line was conceived at an average age of somewhere in the preteens or early teens. Of course, this strains credulity. Perhaps, for argument’s sake, one or two in the lineage—but for nearly 20 successive generations—as an average?? (And that’s assuming an equally unlikely, best-case scenario that these nearly 20 successive individuals were all firstborns!) The genealogies work out perfectly, however, for a 15th-century Exodus: The father of each successive generation would have been around 25 years old, with slightly older ages for the 15-generation priestly Aaronic line cited earlier.
Rather surprisingly, some have still attempted to harmonise even these 19 generations with a 13th century Exodus—arguing that an average age of 17 years old could still just fit an Exodus into the very first years of Ramesses ii’s exceptionally long, nearly 70-year reign. Again, besides the peculiarity of arguing for a dozen-and-a-half consecutive generations averaging only 17 years between them, there is a new problem created—trying to reconcile this pharaoh’s later reaching such heights of greatness and splendour across his reign, against the backdrop of the Bible’s description of the catastrophic plagues and the Exodus. (Evidently, this must have all been but a mere blip on the radar in his meteoric rise to near-unparalleled power!)
But we can compare these large genealogies with more modern examples. Take the British royal family. Tracing back 19 generations in patrilineal ancestry starting from the current youngest royal in line for the throne, the nine-year-old Prince George, we arrive at Dietrich, Count of Oldenburg. He was born in 1398 and died in 1440—573 years before the birth of his 19th descendant, Prince George. Or what about the likewise readily traceable Habsburg lineage, culminating in the final ruler Charles i of Austria (1887–1922)? 19 generations in patrilineal ancestry takes us back to John i, Duke of Lorraine, on the scene from 1346 to 1390—a minimum 497 years between the two men.
Or take other lineages from more proximate parts of the world to the Levant. The Ethiopian “Solomonic Dynasty” culminated in the final king-in-exile, Amha Selassie (1916–1997, son of the famous Emperor Haile Selassie). 19 generations takes us back to Dawit i, who reigned from 1382 to 1413—there were 503 years between them. And the same number of generations back from the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed vi (1861–1926), takes us to Murad i (1326–1389)—again, a minimum 472 years from the end of his life to the start of Mehmed vi’s. These figures, then, fall closely in line with the near-parallel 480-year period from the Exodus, within which these 19 generations were on the scene.
What about simply comparing that period to the royal Egyptian family trees, culminating in pharaohs Siamun and Psusennes ii, who were on the scene during Solomon’s early reign? Actually, certain of these pharaonic genealogies are notoriously difficult to ascertain, and speculation of descent abounds. Furthermore, “dynasties” are divided by rulers with common origin—and for this period, we cross several (the 18th to 21st Dynasties). Nonetheless, tracing 19 generations (and, where necessary, skipping to an equivalent-age individual from another family line) takes us back to either Thutmose iii or Amenhotep ii—both 15th-century pharaohs that happen to be the primary early-date candidates for the pharaoh of the Exodus (given that they were both on the scene circa 1446 b.c.e.—480 years prior to the 967 b.c.e. construction of the temple).
The point is made: Accepting a selective reading of 1 Chronicles 5/6 as a 12-generational interpretation of 1 Kings 6:1 requires explaining how these other Levitical descendants (sanctified, mind you) must have been so youthfully virile!
Not only that, comparison with such family trees reveals that even fitting just 12 generations into a late-date Exodus appears to be on the edge of plausibility (again, depending on the anchor point for the Exodus). Certainly it precludes an Exodus during the reign of Ramesses iii (one of the popular late-date Exodus pharaoh candidates, reigning 1186–1155 b.c.e.), and the 12-generation span even makes an Exodus during the latter part of the reign of the even more popular Ramesses ii (1279–1213 b.c.e.) extremely implausible.
On a related note, there is one thing conspicuously missing from most late-date Exodus arguments: How exactly are we to fit the judges period into a barely 150-to-200-year timeframe? There are numerous detailed timespans given in the book of Judges (23 years here, 18 years there, etc.). Even taking the step of cutting the 40-year increments in half still leaves us with over 350 years worth of oppressions and peace to try to cram or overlap before we even arrive at the reign of Saul—much less the building of the temple some 50-100 years later.
One can’t help but wonder: How much of the Bible should we give up, in order to hold to a late-date Exodus?
With What Level of Precision?
Certainly the case could be made that rounding was used for certain biblical periods. Many of the incremental periods given within the judges timeframe are multiples of 10, and thus could have conceivably been rounded as such (e.g. Judges 3:11, 30; 4:3; 5:31; 8:22; 12:11; 13:1; 15:20; 1 Samuel 4:18).
But while we certainly do see symbolically significant 40-year periods in the Bible, in certain cases the Bible itself breaks these down into further increments, thus negating their identification as a rounded figure or simply a nondescript representative of a “generation.” David’s 40-year reign is broken down, for example, with some degree of detail into a period of “seven years and six months” ruling from one location, and “thirty and three years” from another (2 Samuel 5:5). Israel’s 40-year sojourn curse was issued by God two years after their departure from Egypt; thus, it was actually from that point forward a specified 38-year curse—as explained, for example, in Deuteronomy 2:14. Moses’s age is listed as an even 80 at the time of the Exodus—but in the very same sentence, his older brother Aaron is also listed as 83 (Exodus 7:7). These “40s,” or multiples thereof, are therefore clearly more than just generalized, abstract, vague or rounded generational numbers. They are certainly symbolic, but also detailed and functional. (And again, similarly, there is the point of Jephthah’s “300 year” comment within the wider 480-year Exodus-to-temple period to consider.)
And on top of that, it’s worth noting that the Bible never actually anywhere identifies 40 years as representing a generation. This is merely a derived assumption to fit with the theory, based on the likes of the above arguments—to the point where it could be described as circular reasoning.
Symbolic Numbers ≠ Real Numbers?
One thing here is clearly true, as many 13th-century Exodus proponents highlight: 480 is a deeply symbolic number. The biblical numbers 12 and 40—and arguably more so, seven—are incredibly symbolic and found numerous times throughout the Bible. It’s why, for example, the first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1 (below), is literally full of sevens. The verse is made up of seven Hebrew words from 28 Hebrew letters (a multiple of seven), the nouns of which together equal a multiple of seven, the single verb which equals a multiple of seven, the three leading nouns which equal 777, and the value of the first and last letters of each word which equal a multiple of seven.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Some might dare to call such an insane level of biblical numerical harmony “coincidence.” Others might say it’s the work of mathematical genius—the how of which beggars belief, given that numerical value for the Hebrew language is what it is—it cannot be arbitrarily changed to suit. Still others hold it as a sign of the divine inspiration of Scripture.
But similarly, it is surely no accident that 480 = 12 x 40. (And, when putting this number together with the 430 years from Abraham’s covenant to the Exodus, we are left with a total of 910 years—itself a multiple both of seven and of 12.) But does a number that is symbolically significant mean that it must be different from a real historical number?
Of course, for those who believe in God, the answer is no—that God does nothing by accident, and that his purposes are worked out through the timeline of history in an equally symbolic, literal, tangible and meaningful way. Of course, such sentiment will certainly not move the atheist, or one who does not believe in a God who has a hand in the history of man.
But we can consider some other historically derived dates. What about the Babylonian empire? We know that it overthrew the Assyrian empire in 609 b.c.e. and exerted a full 70 years of total dominance until its destruction by Cyrus the Great in 539 b.c.e. Coincidence? (Note Jeremiah 25—a passage that prophesies of this 70-year period.) And the most significant king of this empire, Nebuchadnezzar—an individual whose life the book of Daniel describes God having a direct hand in—lived for a total of 80 years, exerting the longest reign of any Chaldean monarch: 43 years (a reign which, in the spirit of this article, is sometimes described in modern literature as “about 40 years”).
Applying the same standard to Nebuchadnezzar, one might then conceivably seek to dismiss those numbers as “hyperbole”—characterizing his as a lifespan of roughly two generations, and a rulership of one. Others, however, would see the hand of God not only in this king’s long life and rule, but also in the chronological workings within it (i.e. Daniel 4:32).
What about more modern examples? What about Jerusalem? The city was under Ottoman control, for example, for exactly 400 years—from 1517 to 1917, when it was captured by British forces during World War i. 400, of course, is a multiple of 40—40 x 10. But further, the whole number 400 is also a symbolic biblical number relating to a period of oppression and subservience under foreign control (see Genesis 15:13). Would historians a millennium or two from now look back on this 400 year period as perhaps one of non-literal symbolism? Perhaps instead just a symbolic reference to 10 generations, the actual period being much shorter?
On this topic, others (including our namesake, Herbert Armstrong) have highlighted the further numeric significance in this pivotal moment of British overthrow of Ottoman control of the Holy Land, in 1917—exactly 2,520 years after the first invasion of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar in 604 b.c.e., who at that point in time became de facto ruler over the land (2 Kings 24:1; Jerusalem proper and its temple finally being destroyed in a third, punitive invasion circa 586 b.c.e.). 1917 + 604 = 2521, - 1 (since there is no year 0 between b.c.e. and c.e.) = 2520. 2,520 is another important and symbolically significant biblical number (and a multiple of other biblically symbolic numbers, such as 1,260, 360, 40, 12 and 7). Just coincidence? Non-literal symbolism?
Or what about Jewish control over Jerusalem attained exactly 50 years after the British capture of the city in 1917—during the Six-Day War, in 1967? Will this half-century period be looked back on as an artificially rounded number?
Perhaps we could also consider an example of a modern ruler. Receiving wall-to-wall coverage in the news right now is the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ii—the latest and, by a good margin, longest-reigning English monarch, ruling for exactly 70 years (1952-2022). Projecting forward in time with the same standard, future historians could conceivably look back on this number as “symbolic,” not representative of a true regnal sum, but simply applied out of respect to a monarch (England’s 40th monarch from William the Conqueror, no less) who some pundits have described as the “greatest in history.” Yet others, however, do see this number as both symbolic as well as literal—not least, given a long-standing belief (one openly recognized by Queen Victoria) that the English monarch is the direct descendant of King David and the continuation of God’s promised “everlasting throne” to his descendants (2 Samuel 7).
In a similar vein, one could look at the Stone of Destiny, commonly called “Jacob’s Pillow/Pillar Stone” (up until recent decades recognized and labeled as such, constituting one of England’s most significant and prized religious relics). It was held by England for exactly 700 years—captured from Scotland during the reign of King Edward i in 1296, and given back to Scotland in 1996 by Prince Andrew on behalf of the crown. Symbolic? Some would say so (together with this bookended 70-year reign, and the rather ominous fact that the stone broke in half just prior to the queen’s coronation). A symbolic number, but also a very literal one.
Numerous other examples could be given, which some would characterize as coincidence, and others—like Sir Winston Churchill—as the evident machinations of a higher power. (“I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below”—Churchill’s speech before the U.S. Congress, 1941). What about this “man who saved Western civilization”? Churchill was 70 when the Allied forces achieved victory in 1945. And just as he himself predicted several times throughout his life, he died on the exact same date as his father, January 24th—exactly 70 years later (1895/1965).
Or across the Atlantic, there’s the example of the American greats, the founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Both died rather uncannily on July 4th, Independence Day—and both in 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (1776). Again, coincidence? Non-literal symbolism?
What about on a more basic, fundamental level of time? Is it just an accident that we have 12 months in a year (or more technically put, 12 full lunations in a solar year)? That there are 360 days in a biblical year—a multiple of both 40 and 12? That there are 385 days in a Hebrew leap year—a multiple of seven? That there are 12 hours of day and 12 of night (= 24)? That there are seven days in a week? (Attempts have historically been made to artificially change the number of days in a week, both shorting and lengthening it—resulting in rather unexpected, deadly consequences.) 40 weeks for a pregnancy? The list could go on. 70 years as the generally average lifespan (note also Psalm 90:10). Seven hours of sleep determined by scientists as the optimal number for an adult. These numbers are literally everywhere: seven colors of the rainbow; seven different notes in the diatonic scale; seven continents; 12 inches in a foot. (Even the inherent structure of the numbers themselves is interesting, built on the lesser-known, yet still biblically significant numbers 3 and 4—for example, 7 = 3 + 4. 12 = 3 x 4.)
Some may hold such foundational numbers to our lives and societies to be wholly coincidental or somehow manufactured. But they can nonetheless be equally literal and symbolic. And for many believing individuals, they represent the fingerprints of God.
At the very least, when it comes to biblical chronology, it’s an interesting juxtaposition: Whereas some see pervasive hyperbole stemming from a “penman’s milieu,” others see evidence of the hand of God in the timeline of human history.
In sum (pun not originally intended), the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 is surely symbolic, representing the time period from one significant stage in Israel’s history (the Exodus) to another (the building of the temple). But that in no way suggests it should not be taken literally as well. After all, it is this large number that is repeatedly consistent with other internal data in the biblical text. Cutting this timeframe nearly in half simply to fit with perceived, piecemeal and highly debatable (not to mention at times conflicting) archaeological evidence on the ground creates far more problems with the biblical text than it purports to solve.
After all, as we covered in our earlier article, it is this early Exodus time period that fits tidily with the evidence on the ground.