Living Texts: Interpreting Milton

By Kristin A. Pruitt; Charles W. Durham | Go to book overview

Riding the Hebrew Word Web

PEGGY SAMUELS

As a result of the explosion of Hebrew learning in the sixteenth century, seventeenth-century readers of Hebrew were able to draw readily on the use of lexicons, concordances, and polyglots as they negotiated the Hebrew Bible.1 These aids to reading record particular ways of thinking about and handling the language. In looking both at the prefatory material that describes the Hebrew language and at the treatment of individual words, we can gather a sense of how readers were working with the language. Written while modern philology was in its formative years, early modern dictionaries of Hebrew sometimes reveal a motivated shaping of the knowledge that was being gathered and transmitted via the dictionaries. Edward Leigh's dictionary, Critica Sacra. Observations on all the Radices, or Primitive Hebrew words of the Old Testament, and the more scholarly Lexicon Hebraicum of Johannes Buxtorf, demonstrate the labile nature of the meanings of individual Hebrew words and illuminate the ways in which Milton and other seventeenth-century readers widened the meanings of Hebrew words.2

According to David Katz, “Tor most seventeenth-century English language theorists, the very words of Hebrew were divinely significant.”3 Don Cameron Allen writes that “there is no doubt that like most of his contemporaries Milton believed that Hebrew was the original mother tongue.”4 We can glimpse the emotional force behind these beliefs in Brian Walton's preface to the polyglot of 1656.5 Walton states that God's goodness, so manifest in the world, was demonstrated vividly in his having “poured out on the first men” (145) this divine language. Walton thinks of divine wisdom as having been scattered in other languages because “certain remnants of [Hebrew] are found in all languages” (147). He claims that those long centuries “when the whole earth ha[d] been buried in deep shadows of error” (148) can only be reversed by trying to grasp at these scattered, tiny shards

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