Quick Thought – Exodus 6 and Genealogical Math Fails


So I received an e-mail from a pastor friend who had ran across a problem in his bible study, and seeing that I spent around an hour responding to a problem that many people run into from time to time, I thought I would post an edited version of the response here.  His question was fairly straightforward: The Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years but the combined ages in the genealogy in Exodus 6 simply didn’t add up to 430 years.  He had studied the issue but couldn’t resolve the conundrum, so he needed a fresh set of eyes (as we all do from time to time, especially when we’re hung up on a problem.  Happens to me too!)

Here’s my response:

Thanks for the thoughtful question!
So with Exodus 6 and the length of the captivity, I’d say that you’re falling into a common trap that ensnares everyone at some point (so don’t feel bad!).  We understand the length of the Egyptian bondage because Exodus 12:40 tells us it was 430 years.  We don’t discover those numbers by adding up any of the numbers in any of the genealogies, because the purpose of genealogies is not for establishing chronology (though at times they are somewhat helpful along those lines).

Genealogies are essentially resumes in ancient near eastern thinking; the question of a genealogy is not “how many years does this account for?” but rather “who does this connect to?”

In Exodus 6, we are well into the story with Moses.  We know who he is, and we know a fair bit about him, but all we know about Aaron is from Exodus 4:14.  We know that Aaron is Moses’ brother and that he’s a Levite (not a ton of information). So, in a break in the narrative of Exodus 6, there’s a (seemingly) random insertion of a genealogy.  It’s set up with a double inclusio (similar phrase opening and closing the section – Exodus 6:10-12 and 6:28-30 is the first and Exodus 6:13 and 6:26-27 is the second – and the double inclusio is emphatic, showing that this is something to *really* pay attention to).  This whole passage is a brief response to Moses’ complaining in Exodus 6:12 – “But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?'”.

As I already mentioned, ancient genealogies were basically resumes. It’s worth noticing that the genealogy mentions Reuben, Simeon and Levi, but none others (Ex. 6:14-15); so the person that the genealogy connects to is Levi (that’s important).  Then the genealogy mentions the sons of Levi (Ex. 6:16-19), and then the genealogy ignores the other sons of Levi and concentrates on Kohath’s one son, Amram, and two specific children of him; Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:20).  The genealogy then mentions the children of 2 out of 3 of Kohath’s other sons (Ex. 6:21-22) and focuses on sets up several up and coming cast members in the story of the exodus: Nadab and Abihu (Ex. 6:23), Korah (Ex. 6:24), and Phineas (Ex. 6;25).

It’s interesting how even this “introduction” is structured too, you could definitely argue that it’s somewhat typologically prophetic:  Aaron and Korah are of the same generation but both died in the wilderness.  Nadab and Abihu and Eleazar were all of the same generation (as Joshua) and two out of three of them died in the wilderness, but Eleazar “died, and they buried him at Gibeah, the town of Phinehas his son, which had been given him in the hill country of Ephraim.” – Joshua 24:33.  Both Phineas and Eleazar were faithful remnants after their father and his generation died in the wilderness for their rebellion.  After one rebellious generation died for their rebellion, and one mostly rebellious generation died for their rebellion, “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.” – Joshua 24:31.
It’s also worth pointing out that Moses’ wife and descendants aren’t mentioned anywhere in the story; only Aaron’s descendants are mentioned.  This genealogy isn’t really about Moses at all (besides the fact that he’s Aaron’s brother).  This genealogy is about Aaron; it’s setting him up as a qualified leader in his own right, a Levite who is qualified to speak on behalf of God, regardless of Moses’ complaints about his own weak speaking ability.

Moses may have had uncircumcised lips, but Aaron didn’t.  That’s the main idea behind the insertion of this genealogy into the passage.  If you add up the numbers and come up short of 430, you’re basically treating the genealogy as something that it’s not.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “genealogically challenged in real life” Unger
P.S.-  The final two installments of the Charismatic Primer will hopefully be done by Thursday, but no guarantees…life is BUSY!

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s