What does Exodus chapter 1 mean?Exodus 1 consists of four main sections. The first section describes the context of the children of Israel after the death of Joseph. The twelve sons become twelve tribes, expanding from seventy people and Joseph's family already in Egypt to becoming "fruitful and increased greatly" (Exodus 1:7). The land was "filled" with the Jewish people. The Lord had blessed Abraham's line with many descendants just as He had promised (Genesis 12:1–3).
This time period is approximately 400 years after the events at the end of Genesis. During this time, Egypt would have been perhaps the most powerful world kingdom, especially in the area of Middle East and North Africa. Pharaoh and his people lived with great wealth, power, and military strength compared to the surrounding nations.
In the second section, covering verses 8 through 14, the new Pharaoh of Egypt seeks to oppress the strengthening Jewish nation. This king of Egypt is contrasted with the earlier Pharaoh in Genesis who knew Joseph and had appointed him to leadership in Egypt. This new Pharaoh feared the large population of Jews would rebel against them in war, taking over the land of Egypt. He sets taskmasters over them and treats them as chattel slaves. They are given "heavy burdens" (Exodus 1:11). The Jews are noted as building the cities of Pithom and Raamses. Their work included brickmaking and all kinds of fieldwork (Exodus 1:14). Yet the more they are oppressed, the more the people multiply.
The third section consists of Exodus 1:15–21. Here, the Jewish midwives Shiphrah and Puah are commanded to throw every newborn Jewish son into the Nile. Pharaoh's goal was to stop the rapid population growth of the Jews that threatened the Egyptians. However, the midwives fear God and refuse to obey his command.
When Pharaoh confronts the two women, they lie, claiming the Jewish women gave birth to the children before their arrival. Therefore, they did not know about many of the males that had been born. God would bless their desire to protect the Jewish children and provide the midwives with families of their own (Exodus 1:20–21).
The final section of the chapter is really only the last verse (Exodus 1:22). Pharaoh repeats his command, not only to the midwives, but also to all of his people, to cast every newborn Jewish male into the Nile River. He no longer relied on the midwives to carry out his command, but required all of his subjects to enforce this evil law. The entire Jewish nation was in turmoil. How would they survive this wicked ruler? This fearsome context prepares the reader for the next chapter in which Moses will be born, facing death from the start of his life.