Paul says in Galatians 3:17 that 430 years elapsed between the time of God's promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and the giving of the Law (app. 1450 B.C.). Isn't Paul off on his timing?


Galatians 3:17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
Paul is not in error. There have been various explanations of how Paul did his math. He is simply making a specific point, as we shall see below.

The Baker New Testament Commentary gives us an explanation of the math that may be transpiring here. It says:

Between the giving of the promise and the promulgation of the law at Sinai there had been an interval of "four hundred thirty" (Exod. 12:40) or, in round figures, "four hundred" years (Gen. 15:13; Acts 7:6).

With reference to these "four hundred thirty years" there is much difference of opinion. The question has been asked: Was there not all interval of two hundred fifteen years between Abraham's call and Jacob's "descent" into Egypt (Gen. 12:4; 21:5; 25:26; 47:9)? These two hundred fifteen years plus the four hundred thirty years in Egypt (Exod. 12:40) add up to six hundred forty-five years from Abraham's call to the exodus, and the same number of years (plus a few months, Exod. 19:1) to the giving of the law (Exod. 20). If the repetition of the promise of Gen. 12:1-3 in Abraham's later years, with specific mention of the seed (Gen. 13:15; 15:5, 18; 21:12; 22:15 ff.; 24:7), be taken as the beginning of the interval between the promise and the law, some years could be subtracted from the two hundred fifteen and from the total of six hundred forty-five, but even then the question would remain: How can Paul say that the law came into existence four hundred thirty years after the covenant-promise? Was not the intervening period considerably longer? ... [However], the covenant which God made with Abraham was repeated and confirmed in identical language in the promise addressed to Isaac and to Jacob. Compare, for example, Gen. 22:18 (to Abraham), 26:4 (to Isaac), and 28:14 (to Jacob), in each of which are found the words: "And in your seed shall all the nations (in 28:14: "families") of the earth be blessed." "It may not be unreasonable to suppose that it was from such a time, at which the promise was confirmed (to Jacob) that Paul is measuring the interval which extends to the giving of the law at Sinai" (C. R. Erdman, op. cit., p. 69). This, as I see it, best accounts for the figure "four hundred thirty years afterward."

The reasonable character of this explanation is evident from the fact that Scripture itself definitely points in this direction, for again and again it mentions Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in one breath. Not only this, but in nearly every case when this occurs it is in connection with the divine promise that the three patriarchs are grouped together as if they were one (Gen. 28:13; 32:9; 48:16; 50:24; Exod. 3:16; 6:3; 32:13; Deut. 1:8; 9:5, 27; 29:13; 30:20; I Chron. 29:18; Matt. 22:32; Mark 12:26; Acts 3:13; 7:32).

Ronald Longenecker in the Word Biblical Commentary states the solution as follows:
The most perplexing feature of v 17 is the statement that the law appeared in history "430 years" after God's covenant with Abraham. The exact figure, of course, whether 430 years or 400 years, is of no great importance for Paul's argument, though, of course, the impact would be slightly increased with the larger number. Yet it has often seemed strange to many that in working extensively from the Genesis accounts, Paul should speak of 430 years from Abraham to Moses, which is the figure given in Exod 12:40 for Israel's captivity in Egypt, whereas Gen 15:13 has 400 years for that same period of enslavement.

The rabbis found the difference between Gen 15:13 ("400 years") and Exod 12:40 ("430 years") somewhat perplexing as well, and there are many places in their writings where the matter is dealt with. Usually they solved the problem by taking 430 years as the time between God's covenant with Abraham and Moses' reception of the law and 400 years as the period Israel spent in Egypt. And Josephus handles the time spans in much the same way: 400 years for Israel's sojourn in Egypt and 430 years from Abraham's entrance into Canaan to Moses' leading the people out of Egypt. It seems, therefore, that this was the traditional way in Paul's day of treating the discrepancy between Gen 15:13 and Exod 12:40 and of understanding the respective time spans. And so Paul here is probably not relying on Exod 12:40 versus Gen 15:13, but only repeating the traditionally accepted number of years for the time span between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic law.

Though I am inclined to agree wit the The Baker New Testament Commentary, the important point, is not how Paul did math, but that the Law was given some four hundred years after the covenant, and during all those years before the Law, God's promise to Abraham had been in effect. Ultimately, no matter how Paul did his math, the Holy Spirit approved it (2 Tim. 3:16), and makes the point that God is a God of promise (Gal. 3:18, 29).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).