Jewelers have sometimes backed gems with foil in order to cause the stone to gleam more brightly. The term “foil” then carried over into literature. A foil is a character who exists in a story in order to highlight another character in one way or another. In real life, it’s tough to be the foil. As Christians, we know that we serve as a backdrop in the cosmic story of redemption so that Jesus shines more brightly. With eyes of faith, we embrace that reality. But how do we respond when God makes us the foil to cause other people to shine more brightly for his glory? The Lord has given us the story of Joseph to show us the way.
Most people would probably consider Genesis 37-50 to primarily be the story of Joseph. He went from the favorite son of Jacob, to slave, to favorite servant, to prisoner, to favorite prisoner, to forgotten prisoner, to pharaoh’s vice-regent. God raised him up to preserve his brothers’ lives. He serves as a wonderful example of responding to the difficult providences of God in our lives, especially in his famous address to his brothers “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
But, in the grand flow of redemptive history, Joseph served as the foil to his brother Judah. Early in the story, Judah was the jerk who pushed his brothers to sell Joseph for a profit (Genesis 37:26-27). Judah then shamefully, but unknowingly, impregnated his own daughter-in-law Tamar when she disguised herself as a prostitute. She had acted because Judah had not giver his younger son Shelah to her as he was required to do after the death of Judah’s two older sons. They had died before raising up a seed with Tamar. When Judah’s sin was discovered, we begin to see a change in him when he said “she is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26).
In the following chapters, Judah slowly rose to prominence. His three older brothers, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, had all forfeited the right to the inheritance of the firstborn by their egregious sins. As the narrative unfolds, Judah promised to his father that he would take responsibility for Benjamin’s care in the bothers’ return to Egypt for grain – at the cost of Judah’s own life (Gen 43:8-9). When Joseph’s silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack of grain, the penalty was a life sentence in Egypt for Benjamin. Judah then stood before Joseph (who had not yet revealed his identity) and humbly and self-sacrificially pled for Benjamin’s life saying “For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, 'If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.' Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Gen 44:32-33).
That speech proved to Joseph that God had changed his brothers, and it brought Joseph to a tearful reunion with his brothers. Judah then led Jacob and the family back to Egypt (Gen 46:28). Finally, the stage is set for the rest of history in Jacob’s blessing on his sons at the end of Genesis, when he said “Judah, your brothers shall praise you…Judah is a lion’s cub… The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen 49:8-10).
Think about that from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph had dreamed in his youth that his brothers would bow to him (Gen 37:5-11). His brothers had abused him for it. He lived a godly life and after many difficult providences, they did bow to him (Gen 42:6, 43:28). But in the final analysis, Judah was given the promise that his brothers would praise him and be ruled by his scepter. Humanly speaking, what a raw deal for Joseph – especially after all that faithful suffering?! He did not even get the place of honor among his brothers! Instead, it would be the very brother who had sold him into slavery. From that point on, Joseph is mentioned only a few times in Scripture, and Judah takes prominence as God’s people await that king who would wield the scepter. First King David would come from Judah, and ultimately Jesus Christ who would conquer sin, death, and all of his enemies. The Apostle John, in his vision of Revelation, is told to weep no more because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev 5:5).
You see, in a very real sense, Genesis 37-50 is not so much about Joseph as about Judah. The foil is removed from the center stage, and then through Judah’s elevation, the ultimate jewel of the story of redemption is made glorious until as Revelation 5:13 says “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, [says], ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’”
So, how should we respond when the Lord gives us difficult life circumstances and simultaneously raises up another brother or sister to prominence at what seems to be our expense? Will we willingly allow the Lord to use our lives as the canvas upon which he will paint a picture of his redemptive work in our day? Will we delight to be the foil – even for others temporally – so that Jesus gleams more brightly before a watching world?
Joseph entrusted himself to the Lord temporally and even delighted to be the foil because he had an eternal perspective. That perspective guided his life to his dying day as he asked his offspring to take his bones up from Egypt to the Promised Land because he was looking to the resurrection when God would visit his people (Gen 50:25). With that same eternal perspective, we too will delight to be the foil and hope in God. He has visited and will visit his people, and will glorify us with him in the last great day.