When Did the Patriarchs Live?

The Hebrew Bible preserves enough chronological data to calculate dates for the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and even for Joseph. The starting point for such calculations is the reign of Solomon, which has been established by Edwin Thiele (Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings) and other chronologists. Solomon’s reign began in 970 BC. From that date, a handful of chronological notes in the Hebrew Bible can be used to calculate the birth date of Abraham, as follows:

Chart establishing the birth date of Abraham, based on the Hebrew Bible; it is assumed that Solomon’s first year is an accession year, and thus that his 4th year is 965, not 966. If it is reckoned by the non-accession system, the dates presented here would move back one year each (i.e. 1446 for the Exodus, start of the sojourn in 1876, etc.).

Once the birth dates of the patriarchs are known, other events in their lives can also be calculated, based on descriptions of when they happened and the ages of the patriarchs at those times.

Dated events in the lives of Abraham and Sarah.

Dated events in the lives of Ishmael and Isaac.

The life of Jacob can likewise be calculated, with his birth in 2005 BC and his death in Egypt in 1858 BC. Calculating dates for Joseph is a bit more complicated, but it can be done.
Joseph was seventeen years old when his brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:2).  He then lived in Egypt for thirteen years, between his time serving Potiphar and his time in prison, and, at the age of thirty was released from prison and set over the land of Egypt (Genesis 41:46).  What is not clear is how much time, if any, passed between Joseph’s promotion and the beginning of the seven years of plenty. Because his release from prison coincided with the dream of seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, it doesn’t seem likely that there would have been an extended gap. It seems most reasonable, then, that a partial year elapsed between Joseph’s promotion and the spring of the first year of plenty, but probably not more than a year (Joseph twice declares that this is what God is “about to do,” Gen 41:25,28, and “quickly,” Gen 41:32).
The last piece of the puzzle is where to date Jacob’s arrival relative to Joseph’s age.  When Joseph spoke to his brothers and extended the invitation for them to join him in Egypt, he stated that two years of famine had passed and five remained (Genesis 45:6).  Thus, Jacob’s arrival is nine years (7 years of plenty +2 years of famine), and perhaps a bit longer, after Joseph’s promotion at age 30.  This would make Joseph approximately thirty-nine years old when Jacob arrived in Egypt in 1875, at age 130 (Gen 47:9). Therefore, Joseph would have been born in about 1914 BC, give or take a year.
From this we can deduce that Jacob was about 90 years old when Joseph was born, which supports the statement that he was the child of Jacob’s old age (Genesis 37:3). We can also deduce that Joseph’s promotion coincided with the year of Isaac’s death (Joseph’s story begins at Genesis 37:2, and this is thirteen years before Isaac’s death, Gen 35:29). Joseph ultimately lived to the age of one hundred and ten (Genesis 50:26), or an additional seventy years after Jacob’s arrival in Egypt.
This produces one more interesting chronological connection, one that may be unexpected. Joseph was born to Jacob while he was still in Paddan-aram (Gen 30:25). If Joseph was born in 1914 BC, then Jacob must have left Paddan-aram not sooner than that year. He served Laban for 20 years (Gen 31:38), meaning he arrived in Paddan-aram not sooner than 1934 BC, at the age of 70. Although this may seem surprisingly old, it may be recalled that Isaac was 60 when Jacob and Esau were born to him, and Abraham was 100 at the birth of Isaac.

Dated events in the lives of Jacob and Joseph.

Below is a chart incorporating all of these dates, as well as an estimate for the corresponding archaeological periods (for more on the archaeological periods, see my dissertation, p. 142).

Chronological chart of the lives of the biblical patriarchs.

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