Although being fruitful and multiplying (Exod 1:7) is a good thing, it can also provoke opposition from those who wrongly feel us threatening. Instead of treating Joseph’s benevolent legacy as a blessing for Egypt, a new Pharaoh was about to persecute Joseph’s people. Joseph had great favor with the Pharaoh of his day, but eventually a new Pharaoh, and probably a new dynasty of Pharaohs, arose who did not know Joseph or care about his legacy. Joseph had amassed grain in cities to provide for Egypt in the time of need (Gen 41:35, 49), but this new Pharaoh, forgetting Joseph’s benevolence, forces the Israelites to build “storage cities” (Exod 1:11; what the Hebrew designation seems to mean elsewhere).
If Joseph entered Egypt in the time of, or was otherwise somehow associated with, the Asian Hyksos dynasty, the later Egyptian reaction against the Hyksos would have carried over into a reaction against the Israelites. The fear that the Israelites might join Egypt’s enemies in a war would make some sense after the Hyskos were driven out, since they, like the Israelites, were from Asia.
Verse 7 says that the Israelites became very, very strong; in verse 9 the new Pharaoh warns that the Israelite people had become stronger than his own people. (God had promised to make Israel a mighty nation, Gen 18:18; later another enemy fears that Israel is too mighty, Num 22:6; and God promises to drive out mightier nations before Israel, Deut 4:38; 7:1; 9:1; 11:23.) Pharaoh thus wants to repress them, lest they multiply, fight the Egyptians, and go up from the land (Exod 1:10). The divine irony is that Israelites were already multiplying, the repression multiplied them still more (1:12), and that God would fight the repressers and take Israel up from the land.
The term for Israel “joining” Egypt’s enemies in 1:10 is the same root [ysf] for “Joseph” and might constitute a play on words. The term for the masters “oppressing” the Israelites in 1:11-12 (what God had predicted for Israel in Gen 15:13) does not appear again in Exodus until Exod 10:3—where the Lord demands that Pharaoh “humble” himself before the Lord. Israel suffered because Pharaoh imposed “servitude” on them (Exod 1:14; cf. the same term in 2:23; 5:9; 6:6, 9); but God exchanged that servitude for a better one, the service or worship of God (using the same term, 12:25-26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:21, 24; 36:1-5; 38:21; 39:32, 40, 42). That is, the Lord made them his own servants instead of Pharaoh’s. But in contrast to Pharaoh, the Lord did not approve of treating servants ruthlessly (the term for ruthless rule in 1:13-14 appears elsewhere in Scripture only in Lev 25:43, 46, 53; Ezek 34:4).
God was even now preparing a deliverer through whom he would liberate his people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We cannot always see God’s activity in the short term. But while God sometimes works in hidden ways at first, the ultimate future belongs to him.