What does Genesis 41:20 mean?
ESV: And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows,
NIV: The lean, ugly cows ate up the seven fat cows that came up first.
NASB: and the thin and ugly cows ate the first seven fat cows.
CSB: Then the thin, sickly cows ate the first seven well-fed cows.
NLT: These thin, scrawny cows ate the seven fat cows.
KJV: And the lean and the ill favoured kine did eat up the first seven fat kine:
NKJV: And the gaunt and ugly cows ate up the first seven, the fat cows.
Verse Commentary:
Joseph is listening to the king of Egypt, known by the title Pharaoh, as he describes his disturbing dreams. No one else has been able to explain these (Genesis 41:8), so Joseph has been taken from prison after a court official remembered his interpreting ability (Genesis 41:9–16). The first dream began with seven healthy cows grazing by the Nile, followed by the arrival of seven terrible, evil-looking cows (Genesis 41:17–19).

At this point, Pharaoh's dream turns horrific. The seven gaunt, thin cows consume the healthy ones. This follows the description given earlier in this chapter (Genesis 41:1–7). However, Pharaoh will go on to point out that the sickly cows did not seem affected by eating the healthy ones; they were just as ragged and skeletal as they'd been before (Genesis 41:21). That addition will complete the first dream, and Pharaoh will go on to describe his second (Genesis 41:22).
Verse Context:
Genesis 41:9–36 contains Joseph's explanation of Pharaoh's visions. When Egypt's ruler is bothered by vivid dreams, his formerly jailed cupbearer remembers a young Hebrew. This is Joseph, who explained the cupbearer's dream in prison (Genesis 40:23). Joseph explains that Pharaoh's dreams point to seven years of abundance in Egypt followed by seven years of desperate famine. Joseph boldly proposes a plan to manage the coming crisis.
Chapter Summary:
Joseph's status in Genesis 41 begins as "forgotten Hebrew prison slave" and ends as "the second most powerful man in Egypt." The cupbearer from the previous chapter finally mentions Joseph two years later, when Pharaoh is troubled by dreams which wise men can't interpret. Joseph reveals the meaning of the dreams: seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of great famine in the land. Pharaoh, recognizing that God's Spirit is with Joseph, makes him second in command over the entire nation and tasks him with preparing for the famine.
Chapter Context:
Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers (Genesis 37:24–28). He then excelled in his work for an Egyptian official, only to be falsely accused and imprisoned (Genesis 39:20). There, he accurately interpreted dreams for servants of the Egyptian ruler (Genesis 40:20–22). Unfortunately, the restored cupbearer failed to mention Joseph, leaving him in prison for two more years (Genesis 40:23). A series of disturbing dreams leads to Joseph's audience with Pharaoh. This, in turn, leads to Joseph becoming the second most powerful man in the nation. The following chapters emphasize Joseph's reunion with his family. Details about his administration of food during the famine are recorded in Genesis 47:13–26.
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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