Many of the arguments for a young Earth and universe rely on Bishop James Ussher’s biblical chronology. We continue this series that explains good reasons to doubt the reliability of Ussher’s work because of his treatment of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.
Seventeenth century scholar Bishop James Ussher’s chronology of the Genesis events is a cornerstone for young-earth creationism (YEC). However, Ussher’s treatment of the Israelites’ “sojourn” in Egypt seems to call his methodology into question, and this in turn might undermine the validity of young-earth arguments.
In part 1 of this series we pointed out how, in building his chronology, Ussher followed the Hebrew text (which is used for modern English Bibles) from creation to the descent into Egypt, but he switched to a Greek text, the Septuagint (LXX), to calculate the time of the sojourn, then switched back to the Hebrew text. The significance of this switch is that the Hebrew text and the LXX provide differing information on the length of time the Israelites lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus: the Hebrew text says 430 years, but the LXX says 215. Ussher does not explain why he favors the LXX over the Hebrew text in this single instance, but a logical explanation is that he realized the 430 years of the Hebrew text mandates a gap in Moses’ chronology—thus, causing his chronological hermeneutic to fall apart. (This would also weaken key support for the YEC movement.)
Part 1 discussed the general unreliability of the dates in the LXX when they diverge from the Hebrew text. It also discussed—and dismissed—the best biblical argument for 215 years. Part 2 now discusses arguments in favor of 430 years.
Arguments for 430 Years
There are very strong arguments for a 430-year sojourn. For example, 1 Chronicles 7:22–27 lists at least nine generations from Ephraim (Joseph’s son) to Nun (Joshua’s father), a familial span equivalent to that from Kohath (Moses’ purported grandfather) to Moses. It isn’t logical that three generations from Kohath would cover the same time span as nine generations from his first cousin Ephraim. Furthermore, although it is easy to reconcile Ephraim’s recorded generations within a 430-year sojourn—especially with the possibility of genealogical gaps—it is next to impossible to justify them within 215 years. It would require teenage fatherhood, yet this is not the pattern among Israelites for father-son relationships recorded in Scripture.
A second, and particularly strong, proof of the 430 years is found in Genesis 15. The Hebrew text and the LXX are virtually identical in their rendering of what God says to Abraham during his covenant sacrifice, as recorded in Genesis 15:13:
- New American Standard Bible, updated edition (Hebrew based): “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.”
- Brenton English Translation of Greek Septuagint: “Thou shalt surely know that thy seed shall be a sojourner in a land not their own, and they shall enslave them, and afflict them, and humble them four hundred years.”
Biblical scholarship is virtually unanimous that this verse foretells the Egyptian sojourn of Abraham’s offspring, the Israelites. It seems reasonable to take 400 as an approximation before the fact for 430, but it is very doubtful God would say 400 years and mean 215 years.
Three verses later, in Genesis 15:16, English translations of the Bible may appear to introduce some ambiguity to this prophesy: “Then in the fourth generation they shall return here” (NASB). Those supporting 215 years might point to Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses as four generations, but this is not consistent with the Hebrew text or even the LXX.1 The Hebrew word translated “generation” in Genesis 15:16 is dôr, which The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon2 defines as a “generation (period of time),” not a literal parent-child generation. Dôr means “generation” only in a broad, abstract sense, typically in the context of a long length of time in a familial perspective, as illustrated by the six other uses of dôr in Genesis.3 Thus, Genesis 15:16 seems to mean four undefined periods of time for Abraham’s offspring; the numeral four may merely reiterate Genesis 15:13. In any case, the ten recorded generations from Ephraim to Joshua during the sojourn suggest very strongly that God was speaking of an abstract time period in Genesis 15:16, not four parent-child generations.
As an additional confirmation of a 430 year sojourn, in Acts 7:6 Stephen quotes Genesis 15:13 almost literally in his speech to the Sanhedrin just before his martyrdom;4 inspired by the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:10), Stephen acknowledges 400 years prophesied by God.
We do not know of any reason that has been demonstrated that demands rejection of the Hebrew text as transcribed through the centuries, and we believe there are strong reasons supporting the accuracy of the 430 years mentioned in the Hebrew text, Genesis 15:13 in particular. If the Hebrew text is correct, the result is a clear 215-year error in Ussher’s chronology.
Such an error exposes a much deeper problem: can Ussher and his intellectual heirs in the YEC movement “cherry-pick” dates from the Hebrew text or the LXX just to avoid chronological gaps? And what does it say about their attitude toward biblical inerrancy if they arbitrarily switch from one text to another to make a point?
All this, taken together with an earlier article series, demonstrates the strong likelihood of gaps throughout the biblical chronologies. It brings into question the entire process of calculating a date for creation.
Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.