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The Mysterious Number 480 in 1 Kings 6:1

There is a plausible option that 1 Kgs 6:1 and Judg 11:26 are parts of an ancient chronological scheme which was used in pre-exilic royal archives to connect the past history of Israel (the exodus and the settlement) to the chronology of the monarchy.

See Also: Guide to Biblical Chronology (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015).

By Antti Laato
Professor in Old Testament Exegetics with Judaic Studies
Åbo Akademi University, Turku Finland
April 2016

“In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of Yahweh.” So begins the account of the temple building in 1 Kings 6:1. Usually scholars regard the period of 480 years as belonging to Deuteronomistic or even post-Deuteronomistic redaction. In my recent book Guide to Biblical Chronology I discussed this dating in 1 Kgs 6:1 and argued that it may after all be a part of the pre-Deuteronomistic tradition. Firstly, the verse refers to an old Canaanite name of the month Ziv, indicating that the Deuteronomist apparently based his dating on an older source. Secondly and more importantly, the period of 480 years does not correspond to the chronological framework which the Deuteronomist presents in his historical work.

1) Tension inside the Chronological Framework in the Deuteronomistic History

It can be demonstrated that a 480 year period between the exodus and the temple building project of Solomon does not fit in with the chronological framework of the Deuteronomist. Josh 5:6 indicates that the Deuteronomist followed a popular view in the Hebrew Bible that Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Josh 14:10-11 refers to Caleb being 85 years old when Joshua gave him land in the area of Judah (NIV): “Now then, just as the Lord promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I am just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then.” Josh 14:7 states that Kaleb was forty years old when Moses sent him to explore the land of Canaan. This implies that the event in Josh 14:10-11 took place at least five years after the Israelites moved in the land of Canaan.

It is possible to make a more accurate dating if these Deuteronomistic passages are related to the details accounted in Num 10:11; 13:26-27. These verses indicate that it was in the second year after Israelites went out from Egypt when Caleb (as 40 years of age) was sent out as one of the spies into the land of Canaan. From these details we can conclude that the event told in Josh 14:6-15 took place 6 years after the Israelites had come to the Land of Canaan. Thus Caleb was 40 + 39 = 79 years old when he came to the land of Canaan. Thus we have 40 years of exodus and at least 6 years settlement in the land of Canaan presupposed in the Book of Joshua.

A detailed chronological framework has been presented in the Book of Judges. In the following table I have listed all events and chronological details which have been mentioned in Judges:

Judg 3:8 Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim oppressed Israel for 8 years.
Judg 3:11 Othniel saved Israel. Peace in Israel for 40 years.
Judg 3:14 Eglon king of Moab subjugated Israel for 18 years.
Judg 3:30 Ehud saved Israel. Peace for 80 years.
Judg 4:3 Israel was under Jabin’s and Sisera’s rulership for 20 years.
Judg 5:31 The victory of Barak and Debora led to peace in Israel for 40 years.
Judg 6:1 Midianites oppressed Israel for 7 years.
Judg 8:28 Gideon released Israel from the hands of Midianites; 40 years of peace.
Judg 9:22 Abimelech was dictator in Shechem for 3 years. Should these years be included in the 40 years of peace mentioned in Judg 8:28?
Judg 10:2 Tola judged Israel for 23 years.
Judg 10:3 Jair judged Israel for 22 years. Tola was a judge in West from Jordan and Jair in Gilead (East of Jordan). Should Jair’s 22 years be included in Tola’s 23 years?
Judg 10:8 Philistines and Ammonites oppressed Israel for 18 years.
Judg 11:26 Israel has occupied Heshbon, Aroer and Arnon for 300 years
Judg 12:7 Jephthah judged Israel for 6 years.
Judg 12:9 Ibzan judged Israel for 7 years.
Judg 12:11 Elon judged Israel for 10 years.
Judg 12:14 Abdon judged Israel for 8 years.
Judg 13:1 Philistines oppressed Israel for 40 years.
Judg 15:20 Samson led Israel for 20 years in the days of the Philistines (cf., Judg 16:31). It seems reasonable to assume that Samson led Israelites during the 40 years when the Philistines oppressed them.
1 Sam 4:18 Eli led Israel for 40 years.

Judg 11:26 indicates that there were 300 years between the time of Jephthah and the settlement in the Transjordan. However, when all the years from Cushan-Rishataim to Jephthah, beginning with the six years’ settlement in the land of Canaan, are calculated we receive 6 + 8 + 40 + 18 + 80 + 20 + 40 + 7 + 40 + 3 + 23 + 22 + 18 = 325 years. The question is whether we should take the figure of 300 years in Jephthah’s speech as an approximation and correspond it to these 325 years. However, there is another more challenging possibility, namely to regard the three-year rule of Abimelech as part of the 40 years of peace mentioned in Judg 8:28, and thus regard Tola and Jair as contemporary judges in Israel and Gilead respectively. In that case we have exactly 300 years (= 6 + 8 + 40 + 18 + 80 + 20 + 40 + 7 + 40 + 23 + 18). This would imply that the basic skeleton of the chronological framework in Judges was pre-Deuteromistic. It was the Deuteronomist who put Tola and Jair after each other, and Abimelech after 40 years of peace.

In the light of the chronological details which have been presented in the Deuteronomistic History the synchronism in 1 Kgs 6:1 becomes problematic because it states that the Temple was begun to be build 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt. All the chronological periods of the Judges together are 390 years (if Samson’s 20 years are included in the 40 years of pressure by the Philistines). To this sum we must add both the 40 years of Eli (1 Sam 4:18) and the 40 years of David (2 Sam 5:4-5). In addition, the Israelite settlement in Canaan took at least 6 years as noted above and the building of the Temple was begun in Solomon’s 4th regnal year. When we add these 90 years to 390 we already receive 480 years. In addition, between Eli and David we must calculate at least the periods of Samuel (not given) and Saul (at least 2 years; 1 Sam 13:1; cf., Acts 13:21: 40 years), and add the 40 years of wandering in the desert. This being the case we receive a substantially longer period than 480 years, which is the figure given in 1 Kgs 6:1.

These chronological details in the Books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel indicate that the figure of 480 years in 1 Kgs 6:1 cannot be put in harmony with the Deuteronomistic chronology. If this is so there is reason to conclude that the Deuteronomist did not invent the figure in 1 Kgs 6:1, but rather he received it in tradition. Do we have any possibility to reconstruct the details of this 480-years tradition? I think we have. My construction is based on the view that the 300 year period mentioned in Judg 11:26 was part of this 480-year period and that the actual wandering of the Israelite people in the desert was substantially shorter than 40 years.

2) Constructing a Pre-Deuteronomistic 480 Years Chronology

The best way to proceed is to discuss the length of the period of wandering in the desert which is 40 years in the traditions presented in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deut 2:7; Josh 5:6; Ps 95:10; Am 2:10; 5:25). The tradition in Josh 14:6-15 emphasizes that Caleb was still strong and vigorous enough to go out to battle (vv. 10-11). However, according to the present form of the text Caleb would have been 85 years old. Apparently the text emphasizes that 85-year old Caleb still was (“miraculously”) strong enough to battle against enemies of Israel. But the difficulty of regarding an 85-year-old man as a strong soldier opens up the possibility that there is an older tradition behind the text which emphasized the age of Caleb in another way. We may assume that the length of the period of wandering in the desert – taken as 40 years – was another chronological tradition which the Deuteronomist knew and integrated into his story. The Deuteronomist may have known another version of the exodus tradition which was related to the chronological system which he used in the Book of Judges, and in that tradition the length of the wandering from Egypt to Canaan was a much shorter period. This shorter period of wandering would correspond to the positive version of the exodus tradition which appears in Hos 2:16-17; Jer 2:2, 6 and Isaiah 40-55. The wandering in the desert was not a punishment but Yahweh’s act of salvation. If this is the case, then the older tradition behind Josh 14:6-15 could have emphasized that the exodus from Egypt was followed by a wandering toward Canaan without any long stay in the desert. The six years period which we deduced above could therefore correspond to the period of exodus and settlement in Canaan.

In this connection it could be illustrative to demonstrate how the 40 years wandering is presented in the Book of Numbers. The narrative in Numbers indicates that the writer does not know much about the long period of wandering. Num 33:38 indicates that Aaron died on the fortieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. The death of Aaron has been accounted in Num 20:22-29. In Num 14:26-38 Israelites were punished with 40 year-period of wandering apparently soon after they left Sinai. Thus the long period of 40 years of wandering is included between Numbers 14 and Numbers 20, and among these chapters are instructions concerning supplementary laws (Num 15), duties of priests and Levites (Num 18), purification water (Num 19). This almost total silence about a 40-years wandering period indicates that the importance of the tradition concerning the 40 years’ wandering is mainly laid on its theological significance, not on its historicity.

As noted already earlier it is possible to decrease the period of the Judges by 25 years, i.e. from 390 to 365 years. To this figure we must add the 40 years of Eli to the 40 years of David. It is worth noting that the Jewish historiographer Eupolemus from the 2nd century BCE “knows” that Saul reigned for 21 years (OTP 2:866) but he does not give the length of the judgeship of Samuel. According to Josephus, Saul reigned for 20 years. These figures are not in harmony with 1 Sam 7:2, according to which “the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim twenty years.” This figure in 1 Sam 7:2 gives an indication of the length of the period of Samuel and Saul but does not give any precise figure for them. Assuming that we have a 25-year period for Samuel and Saul (a figure not given in the Deuteronomistic History), we receive the following epochs:

6 years for exodus and settlement
294 years to the time of Jephthah
71 years from Jephthah to Eli
40 years: Eli
25 years: Samuel and Saul
40 years: David
4 years for Solomon
TOTAL: 480 years

This calculation implies that the figures of 480 years in 1 Kgs 6:1 and 300 years in Judg 11:26 are part of pre-Deuteronomistic traditions. They contradict the present form of the Deuteronomistic chronology but enough material remains to present a hypothesis as to how these figures together provided a frame to present a coherent chronological system.

3) The Historical Relevance of 480 Years Chronology

Historically seen, this 480-year period cannot be related to the absolute chronology. It is a well- known fact that the historical period in Canaan during the 1300s is well documented by the Amarna Letters which indicate that the Israelites were not yet in the land. It is therefore possible to date the exodus from Egypt only to the 13th century BCE. This fact implies that the biblical chronology in the pre-monarchic time cannot be regarded as historically reliable, and it is impossible to build any historical conclusions on that material.

On the other hand, the 480 years between the exodus and the beginning of the building project of the Temple during Solomon’s 4th regnal year can also be understood in such a way that there were twelve generations between the exodus and this building project. The length of one generation could have been estimated as 40 years, as becomes clear from the exodus tradition where 40 years is needed for the disappearance of one generation. If behind the figure of 480 years stand the 12 generations between the exodus and the time of Solomon, then the Levitical genealogies transmitted in 1 Chronicles 6 could give support for the chronological framework. According to that genealogy we can calculate that there are 12 generations from Aron, who acted during the time of exodus, to Achimas, the son of Zadok. I have argued elsewhere (see A. Laato, JSOT 62, 1994, 77–99) that the Levitical genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6 may well originate from the pre-exilic period. This being the case a tradition of 480 (= 12 x 40) years could have been generated in the pre-Deuteronomistic period.

In this connection it is worth noting that in fact, twelve generations could also mean about 12 x 25 years i.e. 300 years. Such a period of time could be placed between the period of the exodus in the 13th century BCE (see e.g. A. Malamat, History of Biblical Israel; J.K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai) and the building-project of Solomon in the 960’s. This being the case, there is a plausible option that 1 Kgs 6:1 and Judg 11:26 are parts of an ancient chronological scheme which was used in pre-exilic royal archives to connect the past history of Israel (the exodus and the settlement) to the chronology of the monarchy.

These results imply interesting possibilities to discuss the historical sources of the Deuteronomist. An old and still actual redaction-critical question is what kind of version or sources the Deuteronomist had when he edited his historical work. These fresh viewpoints on 1 Kgs 6:1 and Judg 11:26 open a new window for scholars to think about the possibility that there was a pre-exilic version of the Deuteronomistic History, which was subsequently reworked totally during the time of the exile (see B. Halpern & A. Lemaire, “The Composition of Kings”, 123-153). If this is the case then we may have a pre-Deuteronomistic chronological scheme for the period of settlement and Judges (cf., Y. Amit, Judges, 3–22, esp. 11–13; idem, The Book of Judges; idem, History and ideology, 34–41). Even though this chronological system of 480 years cannot be regarded as a reliable basis to understand the history of Early Israel it nevertheless gives scholars new evidence that we have pre-exilic material about Early Israel in the Deuteronomistic History.

4) Conclusions

The chronological system based on 480 years in 1 Kings 6:1 is not the only indication in the Deuteronomistic History that its writer knew older chronological traditions. In my book Guide to Biblical Chronology I have argued that the synchronic chronology in the Books of Kings originates in its essential details from older sources which were based on data of the royal archive. The Deuteronomist knew these sources and followed mainly them but could also have made his own versions of them. This phenomenon leads us to the methodological problem of how to interpret the Deuteronomistic History which may contain 1) traces of older sources, possibly updated linguistically, 2) textual material based on older sources but formulated by the Deuteronomist and 3) new material written by the Deuteronomist.

During my years in academic research I have found the so-called empirical models as useful to problematize this relationship of the present form of texts in the Hebrew Bible and the older traditions reflected in these texts (see J.H. Tigay (ed), Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism; A. Laato, History and Ideology, 62–147). An empirical model is provided by two or more extant texts which allow scholars to follow the transmission process of a single literary work, i.e., the existence of two or more versions of the same literary work which originate from different times or even from different historical periods. Such empirical models are attested also in the Hebrew Bible. The best example is Chronicles and its relation to the Deuteronomistic History (1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings). Extra-biblical examples of empirical models are Assyrian royal inscriptions (H.J. Tertel, Text and Transmission) and the Gilgamesh Epic (J.H.Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic).

In order to illustrate what I am proposing let me imagine that the Deuteronomistic History would not have been preserved in the Hebrew Bible, only Chronicles. By reading Chronicles I would soon realize that the author uses some typical formulations as, for example, that the Temple of Jerusalem has been built for the Name of Yahweh (e.g. 1 Chr 22:7-8, 10, 19; 28:3; 29:16; 2 Chr 1:18; 2:3; 6:5-10, 20; 7:16, 20; 12:13; 20:8-9; 33:4, 7). I would apparently conclude that this šēm-theology is the Chronicler’s emphasis, and it would be easy to conclude that the Chronicler formulated this theology in order to avoid an idea that Yahweh would have “physically” lived in the Temple. However, I know now that such a conclusion – according to which the šēm-theology was formulated by the Chronicler – is erroneous. This theology appears already in the Deuteronomistic History – written about 200 years earlier – and the Chronicler simply adopted it. This example shows that a certain concept which is repeated thematically by the Chronicler is not his own creation but a loan from an older historical work, in this case from the Deuteronomistic History. And I can continue and put forward the following question: Could it be possible that the Deuteronomist adopted the šēm-theology from older sources? Can I really exclude this possibility? I think the answer is no. There is no possibility to know surely if this theology and other typically Deuteronomistic phraseologies were traditional theological concepts in Jerusalem/Israel. A good comparison is Akkadian royal epithets which have been used many hundred years in Assyrian and Babylonian royal inscriptions (M.-J. Seux, Epithètes royales). The same can be said for the Hebrew expression šikken šēm which is ancient and the equivalent Akkadian expression appears already in the Amarna Letters EA 287:60-61; 288:5-7 which were written in Jerusalem and sent to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Today the elementary knowledge in biblical studies is that the Hebrew Bible is the product of the exilic and postexilic period. But this is not the end of the story. The writers of the Hebrew Bible used older sources. Empirical models illustrate that the topics of old Akkadian epics have been preserved in the long transmission process while the wording has been changed almost totally. The same may well be true for biblical traditions. The methodological challenge in biblical studies is nowadays how to treat this complicated problem between the Hebrew Bible (written relatively late) and sources used in it which may reflect very old traditions. I am just now completing a book manuscript on the origin of Israelite Zion Theology where I confront these difficult problems. Indeed, it seems obvious that some sort of Zion-related theology has existed in Jerusalem as soon as the city became Israelite i.e. during the time of David. And it is reasonable to assume that such theology was intensified when the temple was built in the city. But there is a long journey from the reigns of David and Solomon in 10th century BC to the period during the 6th and 5th centuries BC when the books of the Hebrew Bible were written.


Y. Amit, Judges: Introduction and Commentary [Hebrew] (Mikar LeYisra’el, Tel Aviv: Am Oved Publishers 1999).

Y. Amit, The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing (Leiden: Brill 1999).

Y. Amit, History and ideology: An Introduction to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1999).

B. Halpern & A. Lemaire, “The Composition of Kings,” in: B. Halpern & A. Lemaire, The Books of Kings: Sources, Composition, Historiography and Reception (SupVT 129, Leiden: Brill 2010) 123-153

J.K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005).

A. Laato, “The Levitical Genealogies in 1Chr 6 and the Formation of the Levitical Ideology in Postexilic Judah,” JSOT 62 (1994) 77-99.

A. Laato, History and Ideology in the Old Testament Prophetic Literature: A Semiotic Approach to the Reconstruction of the Proclamation of Historical Prophets (Coniectanea Biblica OTS 41. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International 1996).

A. Laato, Guide to Biblical Chronology (Sheffield Phoenix Press 2015).

A. Malamat, History of Biblical Israel: Major Problems and Minor Issues (Leiden: Brill 2004).

OTP = The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. J.H. Charlesworth; 2 vols.; Garden City: Doubleday, 1983–85).

M.-J. Seux, Epithètes royales akkadiennes et sumériennes (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1967).

H.J. Tertel, Text and Transmission: An Empirical Model for the Literary Development of Old Testament Narratives (BZAW 221; Berlin: de Gruyter 1994).

J.H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1982).

J.H. Tigay (ed), Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1988).

Comments (2)

If we are to take the situation as described in the Amarna letters as proving that there was no Exodus/Conquest in the 1300s how can we avoid understanding the documents surrounding Egyptian/Hittite dealings - Kadesh etc., - as proving that there was no Exodus/Conquest in the 1200s either?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/19/2016 - 17:42

The Stele of Merneptah gives support for the idea that Israel existed in the Land of Canaan. Israel (worshippers of El) presumably has settled in the central mountain area because the inscription distinguished between Canaan (living in the valleys) and Israel. On the other hand, the Amarna letters indicate clearly that there was no Israelite settlement in the central mountain areas.

Historically seen exodus is complicated question and it is clear that traditions now preserved in the Pentateuch have been "cooked" in many ways before they have been edited in their present literary context. So "historicity" of exodus does not mean that we have a protocol minutes in the Pentateuch how the escape from Egypt happened.

I have not yet devoted any special study on exodus but my scholarly intuition is that behind several different traditions about exodus preserved in the Hebrew Bible there is a real fire which caused all traces of smoke: positive relationship between Yhwh and Israel in wilderness contra murmuring traditions; ten plagues contra seven plagues; different exodus routes etc. That was reason why I referred to Malamat and Hoffmeier -- the works I have read among many others.
#2 - Antti Laato - 04/21/2016 - 08:37

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