This chapter is very complex, full of interesting literary echoes and meanings.
As the story starts, none of the characters are named (as noted by Redsland.) We have a man, a woman, a son, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. Remember that naming is very important in the bible, and especially so in this book.) The first name we get is actually a naming, in verse 10. I’m not sure why the anonymity in the first verses.
Verse 2: As Prof P notes, the literal translation of “good” reminds us of Creation when God saw how things were good. Moses will, in sense, begin a new world. Similarly, the word used for the wicker basket is the same word as the ark of the Noah story. The basket is coated with tar and pitch, also used in the construction of Noah’s ark. Again, Moses is seen as founding a new era.
The only prior mention of a child being nursed is Isaac.
In Genesis, at every moment of succession, a woman plays a critical role. Sarah ensures the transition to Isaac rather than to Ishmael; Rebekah secures Jacob over Esau. And Rachel is dead, so the transmission to Joseph is not smooth. Thus, when Moses at his birth is surrounded by women (his mother, his sister, the princess, and the midwives in the last chapter), the literary motif says that this represents the transmission of the covenant.
Verse 10 “when the child grew older” implies the baby was three years old when weaned. Because infant mortality was so high, formal adoption and naming might be postponed until after weaning (which was later than in modern times.) Pharaoh’s daughter names him, that is, defines him, as drawn out of the water (implying a second birth.)
Two women save Moses from the water, which drowned the other babies and will later drown Pharaoh’s army (different body of water, but still water.) Water is one of the critical fluids in the bible (the others are blood, wine, milk, honey, and olive oil, each with symbolic meaning.) The third day of creation, the waters are split. So now Moses is taken from the waters, and Sea will be split later, all symbolizing birth.
In verse 11, Moses sees an Egyptian beating (literally, killing) one of his own people (literally, a brother.) He kills the Egyptian: this is a public test, he is identifying himself with his people, and but must be exiled for homicide.
He flees to the land of Midian, and sits down by a well. Again, water implies life and fertility, and the well has been the meeting place for lots of marriages: Rebekah and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, and now Moses and Zipporah, all met at wells.
Moses protects the daughters of the priest of Midian. This is a second test, he’s again defending the weak.
The name of the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, is interesting and confusing. He’s called Reuel (“friend of God”) here, but in a few lines (Ex 3:1) he’s called Jethro. Those who believe in multiple authors find that the E-author is consistent in calling him Jethro. The J-tradition usually calls him Reuel. He is also sometimes him simply “a priest of Midian” without a name, which could reflect an earlier tradition. The Septuagint says he is Reuel in 2:16, called Jethro in 2:18, but this may be a gloss. It’s possible that Jethro is a title (“His Excellency”) rather than a name.
Reuel/Jethro offers hospitality. The entrance into the covenant is usually marked with hospitality, acts of kindness: Abraham is circumcised and then invites in three strangers, Rebekah offers hospitality to Abraham’s servant and is invited back to marry Isaac. So we have here Moses (symbolically) entering the covenant, Reuel worships the One God although he is not an Israelite.
Moses’ son’s name Gershom is probably from Ger Sham, “a stranger there.” However, the same stem g-r-sh meaning “to drive away” appears in verse 17.
Verse 23: The Israelites don’t know how to pray, they just cry out. They don’t remember God, but God remembers them. The last line of the chapter is literally “God knew them.” Remember that the verb “to know” will be a literary echo through the first part of this book, implying emotional knowledge, intimacy, and empathy. The NIV translation uses “was concerned” which is a reasonable reflection but they use other terms for the same Hebrew word in other sentences and so lose the literary parallelism/echo.
There are four terms used for the suffering: the Israelites groaning, cried out, cried for help, and moaned (the NIV unaccountably uses “groaning” twice), and God responds in four verbs: heard, remembered, looked on, and was concerned (i.e., knew.)