What does Exodus 1:1-20 really mean?

Exodus 1:1-20 is about the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt and God’s faithfulness in protecting and multiplying his chosen people despite the efforts to diminish and control them.

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household:
2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah,
3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin,
4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.
5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt.
6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation.
7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.
10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens.
12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.
13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves.
14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.
18 But the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?”
19 Then the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong.


Setting the Scene for Exodus 1:1-20

The scene in Exodus 1:1-20 takes place in the land of Egypt during a time when the Israelites had multiplied greatly and had become a numerous and powerful people. Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, became concerned about the Israelites’ growing population and feared that they might join forces with Egypt’s enemies in case of war. In response to this fear, Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, subjecting them to harsh labor in order to oppress and weaken them.

In this scene, we see Pharaoh giving orders to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, commanding them to kill all Hebrew baby boys at birth to control the Israelite population growth. However, the midwives, fearing God, chose to disobey Pharaoh’s orders and let the baby boys live. This act of defiance against the ruler of Egypt sets the stage for the eventual birth of Moses, who would later lead the Israelites out of slavery.

The surroundings in this scene are likely a bustling Egyptian city, with the Hebrew midwives carrying out their duties amidst the cries of laboring women and the sounds of daily life in ancient Egypt. The tension between the powerful Pharaoh and the courageous midwives is palpable, as the fate of the Israelite babies hangs in the balance. This pivotal moment sets the tone for the events that will unfold in the rest of the book of Exodus, as God’s plan for the deliverance of His people begins to take shape.

What is Exodus 1:1-20 about?

We witness the paradoxical nature of human growth within the context of oppression in this powerful verse. When the people of God multiply in Egypt, it should be a sign of prosperity and abundance. However, this growth also leads to their oppression by the Egyptians. This juxtaposition challenges us to reflect on how growth and progress can sometimes be accompanied by difficulties and hardships. It makes us ponder the complexities of life and how even in the midst of blessings, challenges can emerge.

The birth of Moses in the midst of this oppressive environment symbolizes hope and resistance. It is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is the potential for liberation and transformation. Just like Moses emerged as a leader who would eventually liberate his people from bondage, this verse teaches us about the resilience and courage that can blossom in the face of adversity. It urges us to look for signs of hope and new beginnings even in the most challenging circumstances. So, reflect on this verse, and think about how it speaks to the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the face of oppression and struggle.

Understanding what Exodus 1:1-20 really means

The Book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, continues the narrative of the Israelites from Genesis, laying the groundwork for the story of Moses and the eventual liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. In Exodus 1:1-20, we witness the escalating oppression of the Israelites in Egypt and the Pharaoh’s cruel decree to kill Hebrew male infants. This passage introduces us to a pivotal moment in history where God’s people face adversity and injustice.

One key theme in this passage is the remarkable growth of the Israelites despite their harsh circumstances. The phrase “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (Exodus 1:7) echoes God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis, showcasing God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises even in the face of oppression. It serves as a powerful reminder that God’s plans cannot be thwarted by human actions.

Another significant theme is the shift in power and the plight of the Israelites under a new Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph. This change highlights the transient nature of human authority and the importance of acknowledging history and God’s past deliverances. The narrative underscores the need to trust in God’s sovereignty even when faced with uncertain and challenging circumstances.

The courageous actions of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who chose to fear God and protect the Hebrew male infants, exemplify the theme of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws. Their defiance of the Pharaoh’s orders demonstrates the importance of prioritizing obedience to God over human authority. This act of faith and bravery inspires believers to stand firm in their convictions and uphold God’s principles, even when it requires going against societal norms.

Drawing parallels to other biblical passages such as Genesis 12:2, Genesis 15:5, and Acts 5:29 further enriches our understanding of God’s promises, human obedience, and the enduring relevance of these themes in both the Old and New Testaments. The story of the Israelites’ oppression and the midwives’ courage resonates with contemporary challenges where individuals must choose between following God’s principles or yielding to societal pressures.

In reflecting on Exodus 1:1-20, we are reminded of the timeless truths it conveys about God’s faithfulness, the importance of standing up for justice, and the call to trust in His promises. The narrative serves as a beacon of hope and encouragement for believers to act with integrity, courage, and unwavering faith, even in the midst of adversity. Just as the Hebrew midwives and other faithful individuals throughout history have demonstrated, we are called to obey God rather than human authorities and to uphold righteousness in a world filled with injustice.

Consider the inspiring story of Corrie ten Boom and her family, who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, mirroring the bravery of the Hebrew midwives. Their example serves as a modern-day illustration of the faith and courage displayed in Exodus 1:1-20, urging us to emulate their unwavering commitment to God’s principles and the protection of innocent lives. Exodus 1:1-20 stands as a foundational passage that challenges us to trust in God’s faithfulness, remember His past deeds, and courageously stand up for what is right, no matter the cost.

How can we show compassion and resist injustice?

We can show compassion and resist injustice by caring for those who are marginalized and oppressed, just as the Israelites were in the story in Exodus. When we see others being mistreated or disadvantaged, we can stand up for them and advocate for their rights. We can help alleviate their suffering and work towards a more just and equal society by extending compassion and support to those in need.

Resisting injustice also means challenging systems and structures that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. We can speak out against injustices, educate ourselves and others on issues of social justice, and actively work towards creating a more fair and equitable world for all. We can help bring about positive change and promote a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect by standing in solidarity with those who are marginalized.


In the workplace of life, we must be the voice for those who are silenced, like a strong pillar in a storm. Just as we protect our own family, we should stand united with the vulnerable. Let us be the light that pierces through the darkness of injustice, shining a beacon of hope for those in need. Will you be the beacon that guides others towards a better future?