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On the Power of Conscience,
GENESIS, XLII, 21, 22.-And they said one to another,
we are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear : therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? Therefore behold also his blood is required.
This book of Genesis displays a more singular and interesting scene, than was ever presented to the world by any other historical record. It carries us back to the beginning of time, and exhibits mankind in their infant and rising state. It shews us human manners in their primitive simplicity, before the arts of refinement had polished the behaviour, or disguised the characters of men ; when they gave vent to their passions without dissimulation, and spoke their sentiments without reserve. Few great societies were, as, yet, formed on the earth. Men lived in scattered tribes. The transactions of families made the chief materials of historý; and they are related in this book, with that beautiful simplicity, which, in the highest degree, both delights the imagination, and affects the heart.
Of all the patriarchal histories, that of Joseph and his brethren is the most remarkable, for the characters of the
actors, the instructive nature of the events, and the surprising revolutions of worldly fortune. As far as relates to the text, and is necessary for explaining it, the story is to the following purpose :-Joseph, the youngest, except one, of the sons of Jacob, was distinguished by his father with such marks of peculiar affection, as excited the envy of his brethren. Having related to them, in the openness of his heart, certain dreams which portended his future advancement above them, their jealousy rose to such a height, that they unnaturally conspired his destruction. Seizing the opportunity of his being at a distance from home, they first threw him into, a pit, and afterwards sold him for a slave; imposing on their father by a false relation of his death. When they had thus gratified their resentment, they lost all remenibrance of their crime. The family of Jacob was rich and powerful; and several years passed away, during which they lived in prosperity ; without being touched, as far as appears, with the least remorse for the cruel deed which they had committed.
Meanwhile, Joseph was safely conducted by the hand of Providence, through a variety of dangers, until, from the lowest condition, he rose at last to be chief favorite of the King of Egypt, the most powerful monarch at that time in the world. While he possessed this high dignity, a general famine distressed all the neighbouring countries. In Egypt alone, by means of his foresight and prudent administration, plenty still reigned. Compelled to have recourse to that kingdom for supply of food, the brethren of Joseph, upon this occasion, appeared in his presence, and made their humble application to him, for liberty to purchase corn ; little suspecting the governor of the land, before whom they bowed dovon their faces to the earth, to be him, whom long ago they had sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites. But Joseph no sooner saw, than he knew his brethren; and, at this unexpected meeting, his heart melted within him. Fraternal tenderness arose in all its warmth, and totally effaced from his generous breast the impression of their ancient cruelty. Though, from that moment, he began to prepare for them a surprise of joy; yet he so far constrained himself as to assume an appearance of great severity. By this he intended, both to oblige them to bring into Egypt his youngest and most beloved brother, whose presence he instantly required; and also to awaken within them a due sense of the crime which they had formerly perpetrated. Accordingly his behaviour produced the designed effect. For while they were in this situation, strangers in a foreign land, where they had fallen, as they conceived, into extreme distress; where they were thrown into prison by the Governor, and treated with rigour, for which they could assign no cause; the reflection mentioned in the text arose in their minds. Conscience brought to their remembrance their former sins. It recalled, in particular, their long-forgotten cruelty to Joseph; and, without hesitation, they interpreted their present distress to be a judgment, for this crime, inflicted by Heaven. They said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us; and we would not hear ; Therefore is this distress come upon us.- -Behold also his blood is required.
From this instructive passage of history, the following observations naturally arise. 1. That a sense of right and wrong in conduct, or of moral good and evil, belongs to human nature. 2. That it produces an apprehension of merited punishment, when we have committed evil. 3. That although this inward sentiment be stifled during the season of prosperity, yet in adversity it will revive. And, 4. That, when it revives, it determines us to consie der every distress which we suffer, from what cause soever it has arisen, as an actual infliction of punishment by Heaven. The consideration of these particulars will lead us to a very serious view of the nature of man, and of the government of God.
1. There belongs to human nature a sense of moral good and evil, or a faculty which distinguishes right from wrong, in action and conduct. They said one to another, We are verily guilty.-In an age, when the law was not yet given, when no external revelation of the Divine will subsisted, except what had been handed down among the patriarchs, from one generation to another; the brethren of Joseph reasoned concerning their conduct, upon the same moral principles, and were affected by the same feelings, of which we are conscious at this day. Such sentiments are coeval with human nature; for they are the remains of a law which was originally written in our heart. In the darkest regions of the earth, and among the rudest
tribes of men, a distinction has ever been made between just and unjust, between a duty and a crime. Throughout all the intercourse of human beings these distinctions are supposed. They are the foundation of the mutual trust which the transactions of life require ; nay, the very entertainments of society constantly appeal to them. The Historian, who studies to magnify his hero, by representing him as just and generous: the Poet, who seeks to interest the world in his fictions, by engaging the heart in behalf of distressed virtue; are sufficient to confute the Sceptic, who denies any natural perception of a distinction in actions.
But though a sense of moral good and evil be deeply impressed on the heart of man, yet it is not of sufficient power to regulate his life. In his present corrupted state, it is both too general to afford him full direction in conduct, and too feeble to withstand the opposition of contrary principles in his nature. It is often perverted by ignorance and superstition; it is too easily overcome by passion and desire. Hence, the importance of that divine revelation, which communicates both light and strength; which, by the instructive discoveries it makes, and by the powerful assistance it supplies, raises man to a station infinitely superior to that which he possesses under the mere light of Nature.
It is of consequence, however, to remark, that this revelation necessarily supposes an antecedent sense of right and wrong to take place in the human mind. It addresses itself to men, as possessed of such a faculty ; and, when it