Exodus 6:16–20—How could the people of Israel have been in Egypt for 430 years when there were only three generations between Levi and Moses?

Problem: Exodus 6:16–20 indicates that there were only three generations between Levi, the son of Jacob, and Moses. However, Galatians 3:17 indicates that Israel was in Egypt for 430 years. How could there be only three generations between Levi, who went down into Egypt at the beginning of the 430-year period, and Moses, who delivered Israel from Egypt at the end of the 430-year period?

Solution: First, it was a common practice in the Ancient Near East to record genealogies according to tribe, or family clan. In this type of genealogical record, several generations would be omitted from the record due to the fact that some persons were perhaps of lesser significance in the family tree. The Hebrew language did not have a word corresponding to our terms “grandfather” or “great grandfather,” or “grandson” or “great grandson.” Consequently, when Abraham is referred to as “our father,” the only Hebrew term capable of indicating such ancestry was the normal Hebrew term for “father.” The same goes for the term “son.” For example, Exodus 6:16 states, “The sons of Levi ... Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.” Traditionally these are held to be the original sons of Levi. However, when Exodus 6:18 states, “And the sons of Kohath were Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel,” Kohath is given as the head of that branch of the tribe of Levi known as the Kohathites. Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel were probably not the immediate sons of Kohath, but were descendants of Kohath. The Hebrew language used the term “son” to signify a descendant.

Second, according to Numbers 3:28, the census of the family of the Kohathites numbered 8,600 persons from one month old and above. If there were only three generations between Levi and Moses, this would mean that the “sons of Kohath,” Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, would have had over 2,000 children each. Obviously, either the Amram listed in verse 18 as a son of Kohath was not the immediate father of Moses, and not the same Amram listed in verse 20, or there were in fact additional descendants of Kohath which are simply not listed in these verses because that information is not essential to the context. Either way, it is clear that there were more than three generations between Levi and Moses.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.