The Book of Names, the Hebrew title of this book, comes from the first word in Hebrew. Exodus is the transliteration of the Greek word "the way out."
Our story begins with a bridge to Genesis. Friedman makes an interesting note, that the Septuagint (Greek) and Qumran texts say "seventy-five" (including Joseph's sons and grandsons) while the Masoretic Text (Hebrew, but older than the Septuagint!) says seventy. The numerical tension is produced by verses 1 (70 who came to Egypt) and 5 (75 coming out from Jacob's thigh). These names, the sons of Jacob (and two sons of Joseph) will become the tribal names which populate Israel. The number seventy (7 x 10) combines two symbolic numbers. (3, 7, 10, 12, 40, 70) and indicates a large number. The author does not count females.
The death of the first generation serves to transition to a new time period. The Israelites were fruitful (parah - Gen 1:22, 28; 8:17 of earth, promise to Abraham 17:6, 20, and in blessings 28:3; 35:11) and multiplied (used of insects to teem or swarm, 1:20, 21;7:21; 8:17; 9:7) and became 'atsam (literally strong or mighty) in the land. They fill the land as humans were to fill the land in the first and second/Noah creations (1:22, 28; 9:1). So the story begins with the Genesis comission accomplished and one of the great promises to the Patriarchs fulfilled: lots of people. However, note the irony, this abundance will not be looked upon as a blessing by all.
Efforts to assign this to Rameses II, a period of Egyptian worry about vulnerability, indicate our concern with history. Perhaps it is noteworthy that the Biblical text merely refers to "a new king." Revelation has numerous levels and layers, the anonymity lends itself to the paradigmatic purposes of the story (in a more extreme form consider the use of symbols in Apocalyptic). This story of redemption will in fact be a template for other stories of salvation. Hence, "a new king" can be any king in any age who fails to recognize God's blessings. Instead, the king sees the blessing as a threat. For me, this is an example of the "sin against the Holy Spirit" Jesus warns us against. The threat of such a vast throng leads the king to deal "wisely" (translated shrewdly) with "it" (reference to the people). Note the dehumanizing language. One commentator responded to the question, "why would pharaoh have killed off his work force?" by pointing out that the Nazis did a similar thing to the Jews, killing off many of their finest scientific minds! Xenophobia is not rational. The Israelites are foreigners and aliens--arguably the Jews in every age are persecuted for the same reason. The first stated concern is that the Israelites will join with Egypt's enemies and "rise from the ground." [The expression has generated much debate concerning its meaning. It may mean leave the country, or come to rule the land or escape their lowly status.] The king's fear (paranoia?) begins a process which will end tragically. The narrative leaves us in the dark concerning the actual disposition of the people. What we do know is the next step is to impose labor on the people.
The Hebrew term 'anah (to humble, to afflict, to be busied with) is found in Genesis 15:13 [Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years]. The Hebrew says the people were "afflicted and labored with labor" to emphasize the difficulties of the task. The forced labor of a community (called missim) will later be used by King Solomon in the prelude to the Civil War that split Israel from Judah. As an indication of the futility of opposing God, the oppression, rather than diminishing the people, results in their further multiplication.
Stage two of the "wisdom" is to have the midwives kill male children at birth. The midwives, unlike Pharaoh, have names. The Hebrew "two stones" has generated debate. Some scholars think it refers to the child's genitalia whereas others think it is a double stone structure which the birthing mother gripped as she knelt to deliver the child. One notes that two midwives seem insufficient to task (Medieval rabbis assumed the two were leaders of teams), but for the purpose of the story such details are not important. Of greater importance, these two females are going to thwart the king. In fact, the rest of the female characters to be introduced will all be players in undermining the male king. So at one level, there is a serious social commentary, for an age where women had few rights and lower social status. As we saw in Genesis, social expectations (birth order) are frequently overturned by God. The excuse the women use with the king is that the Hebrew woman are "animals" (the noun, derived from the verb, "to live," can mean 'full of life' or more regularly 'animal'). The next step, murder the newborns, sets the stage for the Moses saga. Boys are to be thrown into the Nile, girls are to be spared. This is not a logical way to decrease the population, but it creates the tension for chapter 2.