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Now one of the first acts of the very first of these Patriarchs affords matter of considerable difficulty and discussion. Escaped from the perils of those mighty waters in which all the rest of an unbelieving generation had been overwhelmed, Noah, in the piety of gratitude "builded an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar." God, therefore, blessed Noah and his sons, and established his covenant with them, and their seed after them for perpetual generations. Thus loaded with the remembrance of the former, and the sense of the present loving-kindness of the Lord, Noah resumed the labours of ordinary life, and " began to be an husbandman, and planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and was drunken." With the freshness of unequalled mercies on his head, and the sound of an irrevocable promise of their perpetuity in his ears, he had no sooner gathered of the fruits of his increase, than he abused the gracious restoration of the gifts of nature. Whilst thus overcome with wine he lay unconsciously asleep, and "uncovered in his tent; Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father; and he told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant."
Several questions are pressed upon us, as arising out of this transaction. Whence this early fall of a Patriarch so holy as Noah, and so lately displaying an instance of pious gratitude to his preserver? Wherein consisted the great iniquity of Ham, that it should be so severely visited upon Canaan; and why, if Ham deserved punishment at all, was it not denounced against himself rather than his innocent posterity? Wherein also consisted the great merit of Shem and Japheth, that they should obtain so signal a blessing for the mere performance of a duty? And why, as the conduct of both, so far as we can perceive, was precisely the same, was any difference made in the recompence they received? Thus the origin and extent of Noah's transgression; the nature of his son's guilt; the propriety of selecting Canaan as the particular object upon whom the evil was pronounced; together with the merit of Shem and Japheth, and the reason of their
being distinguished in the terms of Noah's blessing; these are the several points to which we are necessarily to direct our attention. When they have all been duly considered, it will then appear why Moses has chosen this as almost the only incident of Noah's life, subsequently to the deluge, which he thought it requisite to detail.
1. The transgression of Noah must evidently be referred for its origin to that fertile source, the infirmity and corruption of human nature entailed upon man as one of the inevitable consequences of the fall. Upon every child of Adam was that evil fixed, and we cannot, therefore, marvel to find the second universal father of mankind sinning not only after the example, but also after the similitude of the first. Adam fell by tasting of the fruit of the forbidden tree, and thus violating the positive prohibition of his Maker. Noah fell by taking of the permitted fruit in a forbidden measure, and thus perverting to the temporary suspension of his rational and bodily powers the means intended only for their preservation and increase. In this then the faults of the two Patriarchs differed, that the one consisted in act, the other in degree; but in this they agreed, that in their essence and consequences they were very nearly the same. Both were accompanied by an abuse of the good creatures of God to purposes
they were never formed to serve; and both were followed by a discovery of the nakedness and shame of the transgressors, and by the denunciation of a curse upon their posterity. That curse, therefore, may in both instances be accepted as a sufficient testimony of God's righteous wrath against sin, and we have no reason to require that Noah, any more than Adam, should have been rejected from all future favour for the criminality of a single, and that not a very grievous fault. For, whilst we carefully abstain from endeavouring to justify the Patriarch by forced interpretations and improbable assumptions, we should equally beware of aggravating his error beyond its due degree of guilt. There is nothing in the language of Moses to countenance the supposition of Noah's ignorance of the power of wine; for why should he plant a vineyard, if he knew not the use and the effect of its produce? It is but exposing the cause of truth to its adversaries, thus to reason upon principles we are unable to establish. But we have a just foundation for maintaining that, whatever might be the fault or folly of this single act, there is not the slightest trace of its ever having recurred, and that, in reality, the frailty with which this righteous being was overtaken, reached not beyond that excess which was necessary to overpower his faculties so far as to fall into a deep and unconscious sleep.
Throughout the whole transaction we meet not with the remotest allusion to any waking improprieties of which Noah was guilty, or with the most casual expression which could imply the banishment or disturbance of reason on her seat. It was a frailty to be palliated, though not excused. Now we admit the justice, and we admire the merciful recommendation of the Apostle when he beseeches the early Christians that "if any man were overtaken in a fault, they would restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering themselves lest they also should be tempted"." Why then do we not carry the spirit of this precept into our perusal of that word of God of which it forms a part? Why do we not look with an eye of mildness upon the unwilling and solitary infirmity of one so righteous; considering that we also, if we were to be left without any place for repentance for each sin we have committed, would be altogether unable to escape; since we must be daily conscious of our numerous transgressions, even in the midst of mercies that are numberless; even under the remembrance of at still more marvellous redemption from a still more serious judgment. "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that" visitest with severity the sin of Noah; for wherein thou
a Gal. vi. 1.