Can you explain the apparent contradictions in Stephen's speech in Acts 7 with Genesis?
I have a question regarding Acts 7:2-8. There seems to be contradiction between Stephen’s speech and the Genesis account. Verse 3 quotes the words of God to Abraham given in Genesis 12:1 and implies by its juxtaposition with v. 2 that this message came to Abraham "while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran," whereas the context of Genesis 12:1 suggests that it came to him in Haran. Verse 4 says that he left Haran after the death of his father, whereas the chronological data of Genesis 11:26-12:4 suggests that Terah’s death took place after Abraham’s departure from Haran. Verse 5 uses the words of Deuteronomy 2:5 as a suitable description of Abraham’s situation in Palestine, whereas their OT context relates to God’s prohibition to Israel not to dwell in Mount Seir because it had been given to Esau. And v. 6 speaks of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, where as Exodus 12:40 says 430. Please explain this contradiction.
I believe that in Acts 7:1-53 Stephen is not giving a Western-style careful chronological treatise on the history of the Jews. That is certainly not his intent. This is a highly emotionally charged condemnation of the spiritual pride of the Jews and their stubborn refusal to accept the Messiah who God had prepared all these years for them to accept. Having said this, I do not see a chronological error in the speech. First, Stephen said that God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran. This agrees with Genesis. Then Stephen said that God told him to "leave your country and your people." Stephen did not say where Abraham was then God told him this. Given that his father followed him to Haran, it makes sense that the command to leave his family came to Abraham in Haran. Again, it is not Stephen’s desire to present a careful chronology, but the fact is that there is no contradiction with fact here. If he had said, ‘while still living in Ur and before leaving for Haran God told Abraham to leave his family, then I suppose you could call this a contradiction, but even if this were the case (it is not), we do not know for sure that God did not also deliver this message to Abraham while he was in Ur.
As to verse 4, I suppose we can see a contradiction if we like, but it is at best debatable. I do not see a contradiction. Again, remember that Stephen is not trying to give a careful, orderly account. He is trying to convict the Jews of their stubborn hearts. However, again, there is no clear contradiction with Genesis 12. In verse 4 Stephen says that Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. It also says that after his father died, he went and lived in Palestine/Canaan. Again, I see no contradiction here. We know that Terah gave birth to Abraham some time after he was 70 years old (Genesis 11:26), but we do not know how old he was when Abraham was born. We also know that Terah died in Haran. More likely than not, he died after Abraham left Haran, but I see no statement that Abraham was already settled in Palestine/Judea before his father died. In fact, it seems that Abraham did not settle in Canaan until Genesis chapter 13–an unspecified number of years after he left Haran. He passed through Canaan, through Beersheba and went down into Egypt. Only later did he settle in what was later the Promised Land.
To be honest, I cannot see even the possibility of a contradiction in v. 5. One would have to be rather creative to see even the suggestion of a contradiction here. I get the impression that you have been reading material by a person who is trying to find contradictions in the Bible. This is not a good approach to scholarship. If you were to record everything I or you have said and play them back, I am sure you could find "contradictions" galore if statements were taken out of context. A rule of interpretation is to give the benefit of the doubt that there is not a contradiction unless the evidence requires this conclusion. This is certainly not what such critics do. They read the Bible with the sole purpose to find reasons to say it is full of contradictions. Such "scholarship" should be seen for what it is, which is biased and therefore not very useful.
As for the four hundred years, whether we say 400 or 430, either is an approximation. We should not assume that the Near Eastern mentality was to scientifically analyze the exact number of years of a thing such as the captivity. When it says that the Jews wandered for 40 years, it might have been 38 or 42. This is an approximation. Besides, because of possible copying error possibilities, we cannot take too much from the difference between 400 and 430 years. Stephen’s point is certainly not to focus in on the exact length of the captivity. Whether we count the beginning of the captivity from the time Joseph entered Egypt, or the rest of the family entered Egypt, or some unknown event a few years later is debatable. Exodus 12:40 says that the length of time that the people lived in Egypt was 430 years. Again, whether this includes the years Joseph was there is not clear. In any case, we should assume that this is an approximation. If it was 428 years or 433 years, the author would round off. That God might have estimated the number of years to Abraham is also possible. Would Abraham care if it was 390 or 420 years, and was this the point God was trying to make?
In summary, I do not believe that the Jews who heard this speech would have accused Stephen of an error. They might have accused him of calling them out in public, but not of contradicting the chronology of Genesis.
John Oakes, PhD