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Chronology, Old Testament

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CHRONOLOGY, OLD TESTAMENT. This topic presents many complex and difficult problems. The data are not always adequate or clear; they are, at times, almost completely lacking. Because of insufficient data, many of the problems are at present insoluble. Even where the data are abundant, the exact meaning is often not immediately apparent, leaving room for considerable difference of opinion and giving rise to many variant chronological reconstructions. The chronological problem is thus one of the availability of evidence, of the correct evaluation and interpretation of that evidence, and of its proper application. Only the most careful study of all the data, both biblical and extrabiblical, can hope to provide a satisfactory solution.

I. From the Creation to the Flood. In this period the only biblical data are the ages of the patriarchs in Gen.7.11 and the genealogical tables of Gen.5.1-Gen.5.32. Calculations of the years from Adam to the Flood vary: 1,656 (Masoretic Text), 1,307 (Samaritan Pentateuch), and 2,242 (LXX). The numbers of the MT (Masoretic Text) are in agreement with the Samaritan except in the cases of Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech, where the numbers of the MT are higher by 100, 120, and 129 years respectively. For the eight patriarchs from Adam to Methuselah, the numbers of the LXX are a century higher in each instance than those of the Samaritan Pentateuch, while for Lamech the number is 135 years higher.

Extrabiblical sources for this period are almost completely lacking. The early Sumerian king list names eight kings with a total of 241,200 years from the time when “the kingship was lowered from heaven” to the time when “the Flood swept” over the land and once more “the kingship was lowered from heaven” (Thorkild Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List, 1939, pp. 71, 77). Such a statement, however, makes no practical contribution to the solution of this phase of OT chronology. Nor is modern science in a position to supply a detailed and final solution.

II. The Flood to Abraham. For this period we are again dependent on the genealogical data in the Greek and Hebrew texts and the Samaritan Pentateuch. Reckoning the age of Terah at the birth of Abraham as 70 (Gen.11.26), the years from the Flood to Abraham would be 292 according to the MT, 942 according to the Samaritan Pentateuch, and 1,172 according to the LXX. But if the age of Terah at Abraham’s birth is reckoned as 130 years (on the basis of Gen.11.32; Gen.12.4; Acts.7.4), the above totals would be raised by 60 years. On this basis, the Hebrew text would give 352 years from the Flood to Abraham, and the Greek would be 1,232.

In this area the testimony of the MT stands alone against the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch, where the numbers are 100 years higher than those of the MT for Arphaxad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, and Serug, while for Nahor, the grandfather of Abraham, the Samaritan is 50 years higher and the LXX 150 years higher than the MT.

Serious chronological difficulties are thus encountered in the period immediately beyond Abraham. Abraham was 86 years old at the birth of Ishmael (Gen.16.16) and 100 at the birth of Isaac (Gen.21.5). But how old was Terah at the birth of Abraham—70, 130, or some number not revealed? And how old was Nahor at the birth of Terah—29, 79, or 179? If Terah was 130 years old at the birth of Abraham, as seems to be indicated by the biblical evidence, it must be admitted that the numbers of the LXX for this period (135, 130, 130, 134, 130, 132, 130, 179, 130), are much more consistent with each other than the numbers of the Hebrew (35, 30, 34, 30, 32, 30, 29, 130). But notice that in the case of nine patriarchs in the LXX, five of them were 130 years old when their sons were born, while in the Hebrew three out of eight were 30, one was 130, while the others were all in their thirties with the exception of Nahor, who was 29—one year from 30. And if Terah was 130 years old when Abraham was born, why was it regarded as so very unusual for Abraham to have a son at the age of 100 (Gen.17.17; Gen.18.11; Gen.21.2, Gen.21.5)?

An endeavor to assess the relative values of the three sources involved accomplishes little, for the indications are that none is complete. Certainly the LXX had great weight in NT times, for in Luke’s table of the ancestors of Christ, there is listed a second Cainan—son of Arphaxad (Luke.3.36), in harmony with the LXX of Gen.11.12-Gen.11.13—a Cainan not found in the MT. If the LXX is here to be followed rather than the MT, another 130 years should be added to the years of the Flood and Creation, for that is the age of Cainan in the LXX at the time of the birth of Salah.

The omission of the names of known individuals is frequent in biblical genealogical records. Thus, Matthew’s table of the ancestors of Christ omits the names of three Judean kings—Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah—with the statement that “Jehoram [was] the father of Uzziah” (Matt.1.8), whereas Uzziah was actually the great-great-grandson of Jehoram. A comparison of Ezra.7.1-Ezra.7.5 with 1Chr.6.4-1Chr.6.15 shows a block of six names missing in Ezra’s tabulation.

Extrabiblical materials from the Flood to Abraham are of little assistance in the establishment of an absolute chronology for this period. No exact synchronisms exist between biblical and secular chronology of this period, and the exact chronology of Mesopotamia and Egypt has not yet been established.

Because of the difficulties involved, it must be admitted that the construction of an absolute chronology from Adam to Abraham is not now possible on the basis of the available data.

III. Abraham to Moses. From Abraham to Joseph the detailed patriarchal narratives provide more data than are available for the preceding periods, and we have the certainty that there are no missing links. There are also a number of correlations with later and better-known periods. Since Abraham was 75 years old at the time of his entrance into Canaan (Gen.12.4), and since he was 100 at the birth of Isaac (Gen.21.5), there were 25 years from the entry into Canaan to Isaac. Isaac was 60 at the birth of Jacob (Gen.25.26), and Jacob was 130 at his entrance into Egypt (Gen.47.9, Gen.47.28), making 215 years from the beginning of the sojourn in Canaan to the beginning of the sojourn in Egypt. The total length of the sojourn was 430 years (Exod.12.40). Did this involve only the sojourn in Egypt or did it include also the sojourn in Canaan? If Israel was in Egypt 430 years, there were 645 years from the entrance into Canaan to Moses’ departure from Egypt. However, if the 430 years includes the time spent by the patriarchs in Canaan, the length of the Egyptian sojourn would have been only 215 years.

According to 1Kgs.6.1, the temple was founded in the 480th year after the Exodus, which was the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. On the basis of a 40-year reign for Solomon (1Kgs.11.42) and in accord with the established chronology of the kings, that was 966 b.c. This would provide 1445 as the date of the Exodus and 1525 as the year of Moses’ birth (Exod.7.7). If the 430-year sojourn involved only the period in Egypt, Abraham entered Canaan in 2090. If it included the years in Canaan, the date was 1875. The answer depends on the meaning of the prophecy of Gen.15.13-Gen.15.16 and the reconstruction of the details from Abraham to Moses. From Abraham to Joseph the details are known, but from Joseph to Moses there is only genealogical evidence.

Due to omissions, repetitions, and other variations in the genealogical lists, the endeavor to establish times by the evidence of such lists must be regarded as highly precarious. Compare, for instance, the line of descent of Samuel and his sons from Levi and Kohath as recorded in 1Chr.6.22-1Chr.6.28 and in 1Chr.6.33-1Chr.6.38, and see 1Sam.8.2 for the names of these sons. Compare also the various lists of the sons of Benjamin and their descendants as found in Gen.46.21; Num.26.38-Num.26.40; 1Chr.7.6-1Chr.7.12; 1Chr.8.1-1Chr.8.40. The variations in existence here and in many other lists indicate the dangers involved in dogmatic reconstructions based only on genealogical evidence.

We should also notice that if the sojourn in Egypt was 215 years and if there were only four generations from Jacob to Moses, then Levi must have been about 100 at the birth of Jochebed, and Jochebed 84 at the birth of Moses. Since the birth of Isaac to Sarah when she was 90 and to Abraham when he was 100 was regarded as in the nature of a miracle (Gen.17.17; Gen.18.11-Gen.18.14; Rom.4.19), these ages are hardly probable.

On the basis of the OT data it is impossible to give a categorical answer as to exactly what was involved in the 430-year sojourn, nor is it possible to give an absolute date for Abraham’s entry into Canaan. Paul regarded the 430 years as beginning at the time when the promises were made to Abraham (Gen.12.1-Gen.12.4) and terminating with the giving of the law at Sinai (Gal.3.16-Gal.3.17). On this basis the date of the entry into Canaan and the beginning of the sojourn was 1875 b.c.

An Exodus date of 1445 calls for 1405 as the beginning of the conquest (Num.33.38; Deut.1.3; Josh.5.6). According to these dates the Exodus took place during the reigns of the famous rulers of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1570-1325). This fits in well with the Habiru inroads of the Amarna period and with the evidence of Israel’s presence in Palestine during the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1325-1200). In view of recent evidence of a sedentary occupation of Trans-Jordan from the end of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1550) to the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1250; see G. Lankester Harding, “Recent Discoveries in Jordan,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly, January-June, 1958, pp. 10-12), the view is no longer tenable that nonoccupation of that area from the eighteenth to the thirteenth centuries b.c. makes a fifteenth-century date for the Exodus impossible.

IV. The Conquest to the Kingdom. The establishment of absolute dates from Moses through Joshua and the judges to the setting up of the monarchy is again not possible with the available data. With the date 1405 b.c. for the beginning of the conquest, we secure 1399 as the year when Caleb received his inheritance, since he was 40 when he was sent as a spy from Kadesh-barnea (Josh.14.7) in the second year after the departure from Egypt (Num.10.11-Num.10.12; Deut.2.14), and he was 85 when he received his inheritance 45 years later (Josh.14.10). The date of Joshua’s death cannot be given, for we do not know how old he was when he was sent as a spy, although he was 110 when he died (Josh.24.29).

Many attempts have been made to set dates for the judges, but, with the data now available, absolute certainty regarding the chronology for this period is impossible. Here are the data:

Reference Years

Oppression under Cushan-Rishathaim Judg.3.8 8

Deliverance under Othniel; peace Judg.3.11 40

Oppression under Eglon of Moab Judg.3.14 18

Deliverance by Ehud; peace Judg.3.30 80

Oppression under Jabin of Hazor Judg.4.3 20

Deliverance under Deborah; peace Judg.5.31 40

Oppression under Midian Judg.6.1 7

Deliverance under Gideon; peace Judg.8.28 40

Reign of Abimelech Judg.9.22 3

Judgeship of Tola Judg.10.2 23

Judgeship of Jair Judg.10.3 22

Oppression of Gilead by Ammon Judg.10.8 18

Judgeship of Jephthah Judg.12.7 6

Judgeship of Ibzan Judg.12.9 7

Judgeship of Elon Judg.12.11 10

Judgeship of Abdon Judg.12.14 8

Oppression under the Philistines Judg.13.1 40

Judgeship of Samson Judg.15.20; Judg.16.31 20

Judgeship of Eli 1Sam.4.18 40

Judgeship of Samuel 1Sam.7.2 20

The sum of the above numbers is 470 years. However, it seems clear that we can subtract the 20 years of Samson’s judgship, because that period is included in the 40 years of oppression under the Philistines—he “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines” (Judg.15.20). This results in the grand total of 450 years for the period of the judges, the same number given by the apostle Paul when he spoke of this period in his speech in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts.13.20). On the other hand, some speculate that the judges were local rulers, exercising control over limited areas while others held office in other parts of the land—e.g., Jephthah, who ruled over Gilead (Judg.10.18; Judg.11.5-Judg.11.11; Judg.12.4). They argue that the judgeships and oppressions at times overlapped (as with Samson); two oppressions might have been simultaneous in different parts of the land, as with the Ammonites in the NE and the Philistines in the SW (Judg.10.6-Judg.10.7). Furthermore, they say, the numerous 40s or multiples and submultiples of 40 (40, 80, 20, 40, 40, 10, 40, 20, 40) and Jephthah’s 300 years after the conquest (Judg.11.26) are to be understood as merely approximate.

V. The United Monarchy. Because of a number of uncertainties the absolute date for the establishment of the United Monarchy cannot be given. The OT does not give the length of the reign of Saul, but Paul in a sermon at Antioch referred to it as forty years (Acts.13.21). If Saul reigned a full forty years, David was not born until ten years after Saul began his reign, for he was thirty when he took the throne (2Sam.5.4). The battle with the Philistines at Micmash, with Jonathan in command of a large part of the army, presumably took place early in Saul’s reign, perhaps even in his second year (1Sam.13.1-1Sam.13.2). In such a case Jonathan would have been well advanced in years when David was a mere youth, which is out of harmony with the picture in the biblical record. Other difficulties are also involved, all making it clear that Saul either did not reign a full forty years or that he must have been very young when he took the throne.

The reign of David, on the other hand, may be regarded as a full forty years, for he reigned seven years in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem (2Sam.5.4-2Sam.5.5; 1Kgs.2.11; 1Chr.3.4), and one event is dated in the fortieth year (1Chr.26.31).

Solomon began his reign before the death of David (1Kgs.1.32-1Kgs.1.48), but how long is not recorded. Presumably it was only a short time, but the indefiniteness of this period must be taken into consideration in any endeavor to establish an absolute chronology. And the forty years of his reign (1Kgs.11.42) might have been intended as a round number. Going back to the Exodus the recorded periods are as follows: 40, 8, 40, 18, 80, 20, 40, 7, 40, 3, 23, 22, 18, 6, 7, 10, 8, 40, 20, 40, 40, 40, 40. Unless we can be certain that all these numbers are absolute, we cannot be certain of an absolute chronology for the periods involved.

VI. The Divided Monarchy. For the period of the Divided Monarchy an entirely different situation is found. Here there are an abundance of data that may be checked against each other and the numbers are no longer round. Four biblical yardsticks are here provided—the lengths of reign of the rulers of Judah and those of Israel, and the synchronisms of Judah with Israel and of Israel with Judah. Furthermore, a number of synchronisms with the fixed years of contemporary Assyria make possible a check with an exact chronological yardstick and make possible the establishment of absolute years b.c. for the period of the kings.

Various methods were used in the ancient East for reckoning the official years of kings. During the Divided Monarchy, Judah used the method that the year when a ruler took the throne was his “accession year.” Israel, on the other hand, followed those nations where a king termed his initial year his “first year.” According to this latter method, the year when a king began to reign was always counted twice—as the last year of his predecessor and his own first official year. Thus, reigns reckoned according to this method were always one year longer in official length than those reckoned according to the former method, and for every reign there was always a gain of one year over absolute time. The following tables will make these two methods of reckoning clear and will show how for every reign the totals of Israel for this period increase by one year over those of Judah:

The following table shows how the totals of both nations from the division to the death of Ahaziah in Israel in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat in Judah (omitting the seven-day reign of Zimri) are identical and perfectly correct when properly understood:


King Official years Actual years King Years

Jeroboam 22 21 Rehoboam 17

Nadab 2 1 Abijam 3

Baasha 24 23 Asa 41

Elah 2 1 Jehoshaphat 18

Omri 12 11

Ahab 22 21

Ahaziah 2 1

Total 86 79 79

The following are the conditions that make possible the construction of a chronological pattern of the kings based on the biblical data that possess internal harmony and are in accord with the years of contemporary Assyria and Babylon: Tishri regnal years for Judah and Nisan years for Israel; accession-year reckoning for Judah except for Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah, and Joash, who followed the nonaccession-year system then employed in Israel; nonaccession-year reckoning in Israel for the early period, and from Jehoash to the end, accession-year reckoning; synchronisms of each nation in accord with its own current system of reckoning; a number of coregencies or of overlapping reigns when rival rulers exercised control; a double chronological pattern for both Israel and Judah involving the closing years of Israel’s history.

The years of the kings based on the above principles are as follows:

VII. The Exile and Return. The Book of Kings closes with the notice of the release of Jehoiachin from captivity on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month, in the thirty-seventh year of his captivity and the accession year of Evil-Merodach (2Kgs.25.27). That was April 2, 561 b.c.

Babylon fell to the Persians October 12, 539 b.c., and Cyrus in the first year of his reign issued a decree permitting the Jews to return and rebuild the temple (2Chr.36.22; Ezra.1.1). On the basis of Nisan regnal years, this would have been 538 b.c. However, Neh.1.1 and Neh.2.1 give evidence that the author of Nehemiah reckoned the years of the Persian kings not from Nisan as was the Persian custom, but from Tishri, in accord with the Jewish custom. The Aramaic papyri from Elephantine in Egypt give evidence that the same custom was followed by the Jewish colony there in the fifth century b.c. Inasmuch as Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah were originally one and came from the same author, the indications are that the first year of Cyrus referred to in Ezra.1.1 was reckoned on a Tishri basis, and that it was, therefore, in 537 that Cyrus issued his decree.

Haggai began his ministry on the first day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius (Hag.1.1), August 29, 520 b.c.; and Zechariah commenced his work in the eighth month of the same year (Zech.1.1), in October or November 520. The temple was completed on the third of Adar, the sixth year of Darius (Ezra.6.15), March 12, 515.

The return of Ezra from Babylon was begun the first day of the first month, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (Ezra.7.7, Ezra.7.9). Artaxerxes came to the throne in December, 465 b.c., and this would bring the first of Nisan of his seventh year on April 8, 458, according to Persian reckoning, but on March 27, 457, according to Judean years. The evidence that this was the custom then employed has already been given above.

Word was brought to Nehemiah of the sad state of affairs at Jerusalem in the month Kislev of the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (Neh.1.1), and in Nisan of that same twentieth year Nehemiah stood before the king and received permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city (Neh.2.1-Neh.2.8). That was April, 444 b.c. With Nehemiah’s return to Babylon in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (Neh.13.6), 433/32 b.c., the chronology of the OT proper comes to a close.

Bibliography: W. F. Albright, “The Chronology of the Divided Monarchy of Israel,” BASOR, No. 100 (December 1945), pp. 16-22; P. Van der Meer, The Ancient Chronology of Western Asia and Egypt, 1955; R. A. Parker and W. H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 b.c.-a.d. 75, 1956; E. R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 1965; W. R. Wifall, Jr., “The Chronology of the Divided Monarchy of Israel,” ZAW 80 (1968), pp. 319-37; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1969, pp. 145-98.——ERT