When Was the Age of the Patriarchs?

Many people have no idea when Abraham lived. Is it even possible to know?
Carsten Frenzlvia Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-2.0)
From the January-February 2023 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

When, exactly, did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live? It’s a hotly debated topic. It’s also an important topic in the field of biblical archaeology. The Bible contains significant and rich detail about these figures and their cultural and geopolitical surroundings. But to understand the biblical account and compare it with material evidence uncovered in excavation, we need a chronological framework.

Can we know exactly when Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived?

Let the Stones Speak

Solomon to the Exodus

When calculating biblical dates, it’s always best to begin from a well-established starting point. Perhaps the most widely accepted date among experts, relative to our question, is the date for the construction of the temple by King Solomon. 1 Kings 6:1 records that this project began during the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. And a general consensus among archaeologists, Bible scholars and chronologists is that this was 967 b.c.e.

The reason most agree on this date is due to the unique harmony of biblical regnal chronologies, Assyrian inscriptions and Classical sources, particularly highlighted by the exhaustive work of 20th-century scholars Edwin Thiele and Valerious Couke. Despite being completely unaware of one another’s work, and using entirely different and unrelated methods of calculation, both men arrived at exactly the same lynchpin date for the beginning of the construction of Solomon’s temple. (For more information, read our article on the subject here.)

As one would expect, there are other suggested dates for the construction of Solomon’s temple. In this article, however, we will use the most commonly accepted date of 967 b.c.e. as our starting point.

The reason this date is helpful is because 1 Kings 6:1 explicitly connects the construction of Solomon’s temple to the Exodus. This allows us to calculate another much earlier specific date. 1 Kings 6:1 reads: “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.”

The math is simple. By adding 480 years to 967 b.c.e., we arrive at an Exodus date of 1447 b.c.e. (or more specifically, 1446 b.c.e., as the temple’s construction began “in the four hundred and eightieth year”). More generally, if we add 480 years to the early 10th century b.c.e. (the time of David and Solomon) we can conclude that the Exodus occurred in the mid-15th century b.c.e.

While the logic here seems simple, there is enormous debate over the date of the Exodus. There are two primary positions. First, there are the “early Exodus” proponents. This side takes the Bible literally and, using passages like 1 Kings 6:1, Judges 11:26 and 1 Chronicles 5-6, believes that the Exodus indeed occurred in the mid-15th century b.c.e. Then there are the “late Exodus” proponents. This side generally believes the Exodus occurred in the 13th century b.c.e., about 200 years later. This theory is primarily anchored in Exodus 1:11, where the place-name “Raamses” is mentioned. This reference is generally interpreted as referring to one of the pharaohs named Ramesses (who only came on the scene during the 13th century b.c.e.).

In order to hold to this late-Exodus theory, the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 is dismissed as merely a “symbolic” number. Proponents of the “late Exodus” also dismiss the judge Jephthah’s statement in Judges 11:26, where he says Israel had inhabited Canaan (to that point) for 300 years. Finally, “late Exodus” proponents also dismiss the extremely long generations spanning the judges period, documented in 1 Chronicles 5-6.

While dating the Exodus to the 13th century b.c.e. is reasonably popular, this requires an outright rejection of numerous biblical verses, essentially undermining the accuracy of the biblical text. And while Ramesses ii is often identified in pop culture as the pharaoh of the Exodus based on Exodus 1:11, this too requires the dismissal of biblical text—specifically Exodus 2:23, which says that the pharaoh of Exodus 1:11 had died long before Moses was called by God to free the Israelites. How can one establish an honest biblical chronology while simultaneously rejecting the biblical record?

The geographic use of “Raamses” in Exodus 1:11, though, can easily be explained as a later scribal anachronism (a later, more familiar territorial name replacing an earlier, less familiar name for clarity; for example, using the modern name “France” to refer to ancient Gaul). We already know Raamses was a title used anachronistically in the Bible—after all, the same territorial name is used in Genesis 47:11, at the time of Jacob. Does that mean the patriarch Jacob should be placed in the 13th century b.c.e.? Of course not. (For a much more detailed examination of this Exodus debate, read our articles here, here, here, and here.)

For these reasons, we will use the Bible-literal, mid-15th-century b.c.e. date for the Exodus to determine the time period of the patriarchs.

The Long Sojourn

Using 1446 b.c.e. as the date of the Exodus, we can extrapolate back to the time of the patriarchs. Exodus 12:40 provides key information, specifically in relation to the duration of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt: “Now the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.”

Proponents of what is known as the “long sojourn” believe these 430 years refer to the time period beginning with Jacob’s entrance into Egypt and up to the Exodus. Thus, when we add 430 years to 1446 b.c.e., we arrive at 1876 b.c.e., or the early 19th century. To “long sojourn” advocates, this is the date for the arrival of Jacob and his family in Egypt. (This migration of Jacob’s family is sometimes referred to as the “Eisodus.”)

From here, calculating Abraham’s birth, his relocation to Canaan, the birth of Isaac and the Eisodus is fairly straightforward. The book of Genesis records a number of timestamps, including several that identify Abraham’s age at certain key points in his life, as well as ages for Isaac, Jacob and even Joseph. These accounts reveal a 215-year time frame from the Eisodus back to Abraham’s calling at the age of 75, recorded in Genesis 12.

According to the long-sojourn theory, which pivots on Exodus 12:40 and the apparent confirmation that the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years, Abraham was born in 2166 b.c.e. and called by God in circa 2091—thus beginning the age of the patriarchs in the late third millennium b.c.e.

But there is another, more prominent theory about Israel’s sojourn—one that puts the patriarchal period after the turn of the millennium.

The Short Sojourn

The short sojourn places all of the patriarchs within the first half of the second millennium b.c.e. This is the standard interpretation of the related chronological scriptures in Judaism. Ironically, some of the strongest scriptural support for this chronology comes from the New Testament.

Exodus 12:40, which mentions the “430 years,” is not the only verse with a chronological bearing on the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. The other primary passage is Genesis 15, where God reveals to Abraham (then called Abram) what will happen to his descendants. “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” (Genesis 15:13).

Exodus mentions 430 years; Genesis says 400. Is this a contradiction? The long-sojourn position holds that the 400 years is referring to the same 430 years mentioned in Exodus, and that the number has simply been rounded down. But there is more to it than this.

Notice the following verses in Genesis 15: “And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance [the Exodus]. But thou [Abraham] shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. And in the fourth generation they shall come back hither; for the iniquity of the Amorite [a certain population in Canaan] is not yet full” (verses 14-16).

These verses are crucial: Abraham’s descendants, who went down into Egypt, would return within the span of four generations. And a study of the Exodus genealogies reveals this very thing.

Numbers 26:58-59, for example, list the families of Jacob’s son Levi, and state that Levi’s son “Kohath begot Amram. And [his wife] bore unto Amram Aaron and Moses ….” So from the descent of Levi into Egypt to the Exodus, we have four generations to Moses and Aaron.

Numbers 16 lists the genealogy of rebellious Korah. Verse 1 mentions “Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi.” The men of the tribe of Reuben who assisted Korah in his rebellion are listed as Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, the son of Pallu, the son of Reuben (Numbers 26:5-9; Exodus 6:14). In both cases, four generations are listed.

The same goes for cursed Achan mentioned in Joshua 7. He was a son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, the son of Judah (Joshua 7:1; 1 Chronicles 2:3-7). The list goes on (e.g. 1 Chronicles 2:9; Ruth 4:18-20). Certain genealogies are, of course, longer than others—but there is a consistent minimum of four generations to the return to Canaan. These examples corroborate the statement found in Genesis 15:16: “[I]n the fourth generation they shall come back hither.”

If only four generations of Israelites sojourned in Egypt, then the sojourn must have been a lot shorter than 430 years. Proponents of the “short sojourn” believe the period between Jacob’s arrival in Egypt and the Exodus was actually about 210 to 215 years. But this raises the question: What about the 400- and 430-year periods clearly recorded in Genesis 15:13 and Exodus 12:40? How to explain this?

Click to enlarge
Armstrong Institute of Biblical Archaeology

Judaism Answers, Christianity Corroborates

Genesis 15:13 reads: “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.” The standard interpretation of this verse in Judaism is that this 400-year period began with Abraham’s literal seed, Isaac.

In his article “How Long Was the Sojourn in Egypt: 210 or 430 Years?”, David Gadeloff explained: “[R]abbinic tradition, as cited by Rashi [a medieval rabbi and one of Judaism’s most highly respected commentators], is as follows: The covenant between the parts (Genesis 15:7-21) took place 430 years before the Exodus, and that is the period referred to in our verse. At that time, God told Abraham that his offspring would endure 400 years, during which there would be exile, persecution and servitude—but not necessarily all of them at the same time. Those 400 years began with the birth of Isaac, since the prophecy referred to Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 15:13).”

The New Testament contains evidence that supports a similar method of counting, one that starts the 430 years with an event in Abraham’s life (rather than late in Jacob’s).

In Galatians 3, the Pharisee-trained Apostle Paul wrote: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul …” (verses 16-17; King James Version). This verse states that the covenant with Abraham occurred 430 years before the giving of the law on Mount Sinai (an event which occurred roughly two months into the Exodus, that same year—i.e. 1446).

The Old English in the King James Version makes this verse a little tricky to follow. The New Living Translation states more simply, “The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses.”

Proponents of a long, full 430-year-sojourn-in-Egypt argue that Paul must here have been counting from a reaffirming of the covenant to Jacob on his sojourn down into Egypt (i.e. Genesis 46:2-4). Yet Paul nowhere mentions Jacob—only Abraham (mentioning him eight times in this chapter alone). Further, the promise made to Jacob in Genesis 46 was a notably different, national promise to the one described by Paul here in Galatians 3—a spiritual promise about the Messiah, made to Abraham.

And logically, why would a “reaffirmation to Jacob” be a logical chronological anchor point for Paul to cite? There are two anchor points clearly described here in Galatians 3: from the promise to Abraham, to the giving of the law to Moses. As the very next verse repeats: “God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Galatians 3:18).

This New Testament passage, then, closely aligns with the traditional Jewish method of counting the 400- and 430-year time frame: Both anchor the start of the time period to Abraham, not Jacob.

And Exodus 12:40?

But what about Exodus 12:40, which appears to clearly state that “the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years”? Can this passage really be reconciled with a short sojourn?

Here things get interesting. The early-third-century b.c.e. Greek Septuagint (lxx) translation of this verse actually includes the word Canaan: “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.”

The listing of Canaan together with Egypt in this verse is actually found in numerous other ancient manuscripts, including the Samaritan Pentateuch, Syriac manuscripts, numerous rabbinical quotations, and the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. The Dead Sea Scroll 4Q14Exod also contains a similar variant. These sources all attest to the same general understanding among these early Jewish communities, that the 430-year period was not solely in Egypt, but also included prior sojourning in Canaan during the time of Abraham and Isaac. A sojourn in Canaan in which they too, just as in Egypt, were “strangers in the land.”

The mention of “Canaan” is not found in the Masoretic text. Of course, it can be debated as to whether or not the word was in the original text, given its ubiquity in other ancient manuscripts. But at the same time, as Vilis I. Lietuvietis argues in his lengthy 200-page treatise, “Was the Masoretic Text’s Ex. 12:40 430 Years Sojourn to the Exodus Begun by Abraham or Jacob?”, such a debate is not actually necessary to draw the same conclusions. He highlights that a misunderstanding of the original Hebrew of this verse—a “failure of translators to regard the context of Exodus 12:40 conditioning the Hebrew meaning”—explains the later rise of “long sojourn” theories. “If this dispute could have been resolved at the grammatical level without considering its context, it would never have arisen,” Lietuvietus proposes.

In briefest summary: Exodus 12:40 is actually highlighting the Israelites at the time of the Exodus completing this 430-year period. It is not claiming that the entire 430 years were spent in Egypt (in the same way that the word “affliction” of Genesis 15:13 does not describe an entire 400-year period of slavery—a point agreed upon by long- and short-sojourn advocates alike). As the late Dr. Herman Hoeh offered: “The verb is not expressed in the original Hebrew of Exodus 12:40, which should properly be translated: ‘Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, completed four hundred and thirty years’” (Compendium of World History, Vol. I). Indeed, the very next verse emphasizes: “And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years ….”

Similar explanations can be found in many of the commentaries (c.f. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, Matthew Poole’s Commentary, and Benson’s Commentary on Exodus 12:40).

Under the short-sojourn explanation, then, the Israelites—rather than living 430 years solely in Egypt—had a much shorter sojourn in Egypt, with the 430-year period beginning at God’s covenant with Abraham.

There are different theories as to exactly when in Abraham’s life this 430-year period should begin. Does it begin with the Genesis 12 covenant? Or perhaps with the one in Genesis 17? One of the more standard counts begins with the events in Genesis 12, when Abraham was 75 years old (and ironically, Abraham himself, in this very same chapter, takes his family down into Egypt to sojourn—verses 10-20). Using this date, the math is easy: Adding 430 years to 1446 b.c.e. (the Exodus) puts Abraham’s birth around 1951 b.c.e. with his entry into Canaan 75 years later around 1876 b.c.e.; the birth of Isaac 25 years later in 1851 b.c.e. (Genesis 21:5); the birth of Jacob in 1791 b.c.e. (Genesis 25:26); and Joseph’s birth around 1700 b.c.e. (Genesis 47:9; 41:46-53; 45:6). Continuing, this puts Joseph’s promotion in Egypt around 1670 b.c.e. and Jacob’s entry with his family into Egypt around 1661 b.c.e.

Again, this is not necessarily an absolute endorsement of each of these very specific dates. Rather, this is a general demonstration of the standard view of biblical chronology using the short sojourn, an early Exodus and 967 b.c.e. as the starting point for Solomon’s temple. There are minor differences in theories for each of these dates, based on which covenant passage serves as the benchmark for the 430 years. Still, the overall chronology is evident: The patriarchal age fell firmly within the first half of the second millennium b.c.e.

The Weight of Evidence

As we have briefly seen, this “short sojourn” interpretation was the widely held understanding of different ancient Jewish communities, as well as the early Christian community. The short sojourn even aligns more closely with Islam’s dating for Ishmael (2424 b.h.—“Before Hijra,” from the Islamic calendar centered on 622 c.e.—see, for example, The Great History by the ninth-century c.e. Persian scholar Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari, whose work is regarded as second only to the Qur’an). Again, there are certain differences in the dating (more or less pronounced, depending on different theories for the exact calculation of individual dates), but both the Ishmael of Islam and the Ishmael of the short sojourn date to the same century, the 1800s b.c.e.

Josephus was a proponent of the short sojourn (you can read his explanation in Antiquities of the Jews, 2.15.2). This was also the position of Demetrius the Chronographer, a third-century b.c.e. historian (Fragment 2, Lines 18-19), as well as of the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo (On the Life of Moses, 1.2.7). The short sojourn also fits with various details contained in the writings of the fifth-century c.e. Greek historian Ctesias.

Finally, this dating of the patriarchal period, well within the second millennium b.c.e. (rather than at the end of the third) fits squarely with archaeological evidence.

Take, for example, the cities. Several cities, such as Jerusalem, Hebron and Dan/Laish are mentioned in the Bible in relation to Abraham. Archaeological excavations have revealed that each was constructed around the 19th century b.c.e. Each was present during the short-sojourn time frame of Abraham, but nonexistent during the long-sojourn time frame. It’s a similar story with Tall el-Hammam, identified as biblical Sodom. Archaeologists have revealed a fiery “extinction event” at the site and surrounding areas, dating to the latter part of the first half of the second millennium b.c.e.—more than 200 years after a long-sojourn Abraham would have died (click here to read more about this subject).

The geopolitical situation in the region also squares nicely. Genesis 14 describes an Elamite-dominated Mesopotamian coalition at the time of Abraham, led by a king with a Chedor- (Kudur-) title attempting to punish the people of Canaan for failing to pay tribute. This fits squarely—and only—with the geopolitical situation within the first half of the second millennium b.c.e.: The “Elamite Conquest” period (2000–1700 b.c.e.), in which coalitions led by Elam (and kings bearing Kudur- titles, no less) exerted dominance over territory as far away as the Levant. It’s also during this period that other polities are on the scene—such as the 19th-century King Eriaku of Larsa, matching with Genesis 14:1’s “Erioch of Ellasar” (see our article on this, here).

Is this all mere coincidence?

When did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live? As we have seen, the weight of evidence shows that the age of the patriarchs can most accurately be dated to the first half of the second millennium b.c.e.

Let the Stones Speak