A Unique Metaphor

Moshe Ben-Chaim

"And the settlement of the Jews which they lived in Egypt was 430 years. And it was at the end of 430 years, in that very day there departed all of God's troops from the land of Egypt. A night of watching was it to God to bring them out from the land of Egypt. That was this night to God: watched for all the Children of Israel for their generations". (Exod. 12:40-42)

The problem is this: the Jews did not dwell in Egypt for 430 years. Rather, it was 210 years. The Torah cannot contradict facts. Therefore, we must discover the true intent of this time frame, as it is not literal. Then, we must understand why God saw it necessary to formulate this lesson in a non-literal manner. 

Sforno and Ibn Ezra teach that 430 years earlier marks the date of Avram's (Avram's) exit from Ur Kasdim. But they don't go further to explain the correlation between his departure 430 years earlier, and the Egyptian Exodus. They merely give us the significance of that date. To be clear, an accurate verse would state, either, that Avram left Ur Kasdim 430 years earlier, or the Jews lived in Egypt 210 years. But our verse combines elements from two, disparate historical accounts – Avram's departure from Ur, and of the Jews' departure from Egypt. Thereby, the Torah scripts a time range of the Jews' Egyptian settlement, 220 years longer than reality. Let's review God's earlier communication with Avram concerning the impending bondage:

"After these matters, the word of God came to Avram in a vision saying, "Do not fear Avram, I am your shield; your reward is very great." And Avram said to God, "God, Governor, what shall you give me, and behold I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer." And Avram said, "Behold to me you have not given seed, and behold the houseman will inherit me." And behold, the word of God was to him saying, "This one will not inherit you, rather, one who comes from your innards, he will inherit you." And He took him outside and He said, "Gaze at the heavens and count the stars. If you are capable of counting them, so too shall your seed be." And he believed God, and God considered it a righteousness [to Avram]. And He said to him, "I am God who took you out of Ur Kasdim to give to you this land as an inheritance." And Avram said, "God, Governor, with what shall I know that I shall inherit it?" And He said, "Take Me three heifers, three goats, three rams, a turtledove and a young dove." He took all these, he cut them in them in the center and placed each piece opposite its counterpart…" (Gen. 15:1-9)

"And He said to Avram, "Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them, 400 years. But also the nation they will serve, I will judge…" (ibid 15:13,14)

This 400-year forecast in Genesis commences from Isaac's birth and ends with the Egyptian Exodus. These 400 years are identical to "And the settlement of the Jews which they lived in Egypt was 430 years" stated in Exodus, only they are counted 30 years prior to Isaac's birth. In Genesis, the 400 years is not specified as limited exclusively to "dwelling in Egypt". The Jews' lived as aliens in foreign lands long before their stay in Egypt. Thus, Egypt is merely one of many foreign lands, in which the Jews would be aliens. This starts to answer the problem: the Jews didn't actually live in Egypt for 430 years. The total 430-year period intends to highlight a period of some "form" of subjugation. Only 210 of those years were spent in Egyptian servitude. So what was the "subjugation" of the previous 220 years? And we must still uncover why the verse in Exodus gives such a literal impression that they did reside in Egypt that long. Let us examine Avram's vision and line-up the questions:

1) Primarily, why did the Jews deserve this forecasted oppression? What sin demanded this punishment? And we know the Jews sinned, as God says, "But also the nation they will serve, I will judge" — emphasis on "also," to include God's judgment of the Jews too. This judgment must teach of some sin. And how does oppression correct or atone for the sin?

2) Why did Avram desire his own seed promulgate his monotheistic teachings, rendering Eliezer insufficient for this role?

3) Why did Avram accept — without question — the promise of numerous offspring, and the forecast of oppression of his seed…but he does question the basis that his seed would inherit the land?

4) Why is Avram satisfied with God's answer for the basis for this inheritance: dividing a few animals?

5) God does not always tell His prophets the future of the nation. Why does He do so here?

6) Why does God wait to identify Himself, only upon announcing the land as an inheritance, and not at the very commencement of this prophecy?

7) What is the term "night of watching" to teach us?

8) Finally, how do we interpret the 430 years and what is the relationship to the Egyptian exodus?

Sforno (Gen. 15:13) says the Prophet Ezekiel blamed the Jews' idolatry as the cause of the bondage in Egypt: "But they rebelled against me and would not hearken to Me; they did not — every man — cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt." (Ezek. 20:8) Sforno adds (ibid) that the while tribes (Jacob's sons) were alive, no servitude began, as they were righteous individuals. Thus, the Jews lived in Egypt freely and without sin, for a while. Eventually they were attracted to the Egyptian idolatry, as Ezekiel teaches, and were oppressed due to God's will, as punishment.

Idolatry is one of the worst sins, as it rejects the most primary idea, and the sole reason that we exist: to recognize that the universe has a Creator and Governor, that He is one, non-physical, and to study His wisdom as revealed in the universe and in the Torah. 

Maimonides commences his great work, the Mishneh Torah, with the words "Fundamental of fundamentals, and pillar of all wisdom: to know there is a First Existence". (He actually spells-out God's name with the first letters of the first four words)  Knowledge of God — He who caused all else — must precede all other knowledge. For without knowledge of God, we have no knowledge at all. We may see a universe, study its laws and learn to harness and manipulate its resources to create marvels in technology. But if this universe offers man no reflection of the Creator, his knowledge is purposeless. "The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge…" (Proverbs 1:7) "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God…" (Psalms 111:10) Kings Solomon and David make this clear.

We now appreciate that the Jews' idolatry required a response, if they were to deserve continued existence. God caused our slavery, and we finally cried out to Him. We turned back towards the Creator, and renounced idolatry. The Paschal Lamb was required for the Jews' redemption. This is in consonance with the dividing of the animals that God commanded Avram in the vision. Meaning, the denouncing of animals as deities earned the Jews God's providence. Avram did not inquire about God's promise to make the Jews as numerous as stars. God can perform His will. He also did not ask why the Jews would be oppressed, since man too can perform his will, including sin, and he will deserve punishment. What Avram did inquire of, was the basis for God's redeeming the Jews. What would they do to deserve salvation? God's answer was to kill the animals. Avram understood this response, and asked nothing further. This made sense as a basis for their redemption, that the Jews would kill the very deities they once worshipped. 

The reason God says the Exodus was a "night of watching," is, as Ramban teaches, because God "awaited" this great day. It was the goal that the Jews leave Egypt and idolatry, and become a nation unto God. Such a momentous occasion is termed as waited for, or "watched".  

In the vision, God only identifies Himself as the one who took Avram out of Ur Kasdim, only as He is about to promise the inheritance of Israel. For this was the reason He gave Avram the land: that Avram's monotheism could flourish. Only in connection with his monotheistic teachings, is there relevance of Ur Kasdim. 

And Sforno teaches that God revealed the future oppression in that vision, so years later, the Jews might not view it as happenstance, but as God's will. Only through a received, prophetic transmission that the bondage was an act of providence, could the Jews know they were enslaved by God's will, and repent.

We also asked why Eliezer was not Avram's choice to carry on monotheism. Avram understood that his teachings would have greater affect on his children, if taught by his children. Human nature is to favor one's familial ties and culture, as opposed to notions of alien origin. 

Now, how do we answer the main question?

By stating the Jews dwelled in Egypt 430 years — when in fact they did not — God associates the Jewish settlement in Egypt with Abraham's exodus from Ur Kasdim 430 years earlier. There is a relationship: Ur Kasdim was a hotbed of idolatry, and the Jews were enslaved due to idolatry — the identity of Ur Kasdim — and ultimately expressed on a national level in Egypt. The Jews did not literally live in Egypt 430 years. It was only 210 years. However, God wishes to warn mankind of the greatest of dangers. Therefore He referred to the idolatrous influence in tangible terms, by stating that the Jews "lived in Egypt 430 years". This means to equate the "influence" of idolatry that spread from Ur Kasdim, with the actual living in an idolatrous environment. Those 220 years prior to Egypt were as if the Jews were already immersed in Egypt's physical environment, permeated with idolatry. It didn't matter that they were not in Egypt, since the idolatrous trends were all around.

This equation is well-founded. For it is the psychological effect of idolatry that damages man; not the mere existence of idols and idolaters. And in order to teach man that regarding idolatry, it is the internal, psychological world that is most real, God talks about these internal effects, as if they are externally experienced, as if living in Egypt. So it can be said metaphorically that the Jews "lived in Egypt 430 years". However, this case of metaphor is different than most, since idolatrous influence is truly internal, and did exist 430 years.

We learn that God communicates with man, in a manner that the primary lesson is delivered in the most effective way. Since man initially views physical reality as more real than internal and psychological forces, the Torah depicts idolatry in spatial terms. Additionally, such an overt historical "error" of the Jews settlement in Egypt causes the Torah student to spend more time delving into the matter to resolve the glaring problem. This in turn creates a greater impression on the Torah student regarding this vital matter of God's exclusive role as Creator, and the rejection of idolatry.

"One who denies idolatry, is as if he affirms the entire Torah. One who affirms idolatry is as if he denies the entire Torah". (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 2:7)

Thanks to my friend Avi who raised this question over Pesach