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The Biblical Job and Robert E. Lee

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If ever we met a tragic hero, it would be Job. I like Job too. I admire him. But this week I noticed something about Job that complicates my relationship with him. Job holds something in common with Robert E. Lee: They both owned slaves.

Both Job and Lee faced enemies they could not defeat. Lee's case is better known, with the North's advantages in population, manufacturing, transportation, and natural resources. But Job confronted the most powerful adversary imaginable: God.

[God] has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. (Job 16:9 NRSV; see Job 31:35)

Job makes an excellent hero and a tragic victim. Not only is he "blameless and upright," but he so avoids evil that he offers sacrifices just in case his children have sinned. Yet precisely Job's righteousness proves his own undoing. When Satan accuses Job of doing righteousness only because God blesses him, God abandons the poor man to Satan's devices. A series of disasters annihilates Job's household, his children as well as his slaves. Job himself suffers "loathsome sores" (2:7).

The amazing thing is that Job resists God. He doesn't simply endure patiently. In fact, the cliché "the patience of Job" has nothing to do with this book. Job stands up to accuse God, almost as if he expects that his argument might lead God to repentance.

Oh, that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before God, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (Job 23:3-7)

This is why we admire Job. Not only is Job righteous, but he is courageous. He maintains his integrity in the face of divine injustice. What a hero.

The South, where I grew up, venerated its own tragic hero, Robert E. Lee. As the legend goes, Lee was a brilliant general, not only wise in strategy, tactics, and logistics but an admirable human being. According to the legend, Lee's own soldiers, who followed Lee to their own deaths by the tens of thousands, would do anything for their gallant leader. The legend commemorates Lee's military prowess by reminding us of the risks he took by dividing his forces in the very face of the enemy, thereby throwing his enemy into doubt and disorder. The legend has it that Lee declined an offer to command the Union forces, telling a friend, "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children." We white Southerners love Lee so much that we'll accept pretty much any explanation that exonerates him from sending all those kids up Cemetery Ridge in the disastrous Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.

The man could do no wrong. That is why Lee has a massive statue on Richmond's famous Monument Avenue. It's why countless Southern high-school teams call themselves "the Generals." It's why Virginia, galled by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, celebrates Lee-Jackson Day. My home state, Alabama, has Lee-King Day. So does Mississippi; apparently Confederate Memorial Day, which the state also celebrates, wasn't sufficient. No kidding. I haven't checked all the other Southern states.

Beyond their heroism, Job and Lee hold something else in common. Both Job and Lee were slaveowners. According to Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who has written a biography of Lee, the general's record on slavery isn't pretty. Lee inherited nearly 200 slaves from his father, who stipulated that the slaves were to be freed within five years. Lee kept them and worked them for almost the entire five years. He gained a reputation for being tough on his slaves and for breaking up slave families by selling individual slaves. Although Lee condemned slavery as evil (more for slaveholders than for slaves!), he also regarded the "painful discipline" slaves suffered as necessary for their moral improvement as a race.

And Job? We have already seen that many of Job's servants die in the disasters that befall his children (1:15-17). Indeed, as the story begins, Job owns "very many" slaves (1:3). And when God finally restores Job's fortunes, "the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before" (42:10). Remarkably, the list of his new possessions includes 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys, but it does not mention slaves at all (42:12).

One remarkable passage bears our attention. Job laments how low God has brought him; God "counts [Job] as his adversary" and musters an army to confront the poor man (19:11-12). Then Job grieves over how those who should be close to him -- brothers and acquaintances, relatives and friends -- have abandoned him. Then Job surprises us.

My serving girls count me as a stranger; I am an outsider to them. I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer; I must myself plead with him. My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own [children]. (19:15-17, NRSV, with modification)

Here Job wishes his "serving girls" and servants would respond to him. We modern readers might be surprised that Job wants intimacy with his female and male slaves in a way that corresponds to the intimacy he desires from his wife and children. But then we remember what slavery is: When one person owns other people, the slaveowner can believe those people actually love him. Mix in the reality that throughout history slaveowners have often used their slaves sexually -- this is the case in the Bible, most famously with Abraham -- and this passage looks very different.

General Lee's relationship to slavery casts suspicion on the devotion he receives in the South, but our fondness for Job has been left largely untouched. I wonder what we might learn from that.