Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root-verb זנה (zanah) means to commit fornication or to be a harlot, and this only for women (or groups of people, which are also feminine). With barely bridled enthusiasm HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament decrees that the basic idea of this verb is "to commit illicit intercourse," and adds with some emphasis a "literal" meaning of "illicit heterosexual intercourse". Here at Abarim Publications, however, we doubt that our verb's base is sexual (let alone literally emphasizes heterosexuality).
To us it seems that the basic meaning of our verb is to shift allegiance out of perceived need for sustenance. On a personal level this would indeed describe a woman who entertains multiple sexual partners, whether she is married and unfaithful (Hosea 3:3), widowed and destitute (Genesis 38:15, Amos 7:17), adolescent and premaritally active (Leviticus 21:9, Deuteronomy 22:21), or a professional prostitute (Joshua 2:1, Judges 11:1). On a political level, this would describe shifting alliances between nations (Jeremiah 3:1, Ezekiel 16:28, Isaiah 23:17). And on a theological level it would describe a shifting adherence to various theological expressions (Exodus 34:15, Deuteronomy 31:16, Judges 2:17), paranormal activities (Leviticus 20:6), or even one's own roving eyes (Numbers 15:39).
Only women are described as harlots or committing harlotry, and this has nothing to do with a presumed male impunity. Harlotry was either the result of weakness of character, or else dire economic straights. It may take a moment of reflection, but it should be noted that in the New Testament, the male equivalent of being a harlot was being a tax collector (Matthew 21:31-32).
Another verb that describes sexual vice is נאף (na'ap), meaning to commit adultery by either males or females but mostly applied to men, and which was prohibited by means of one of the Ten Commandments. In the Bible, harlotry is looked down upon, but oddly enough rarely if ever prohibited, and sometimes even acknowledged as a reasonable means to survival (although harlotry for purely recreational reasons was punishable by death, irrespective of the woman's marital status; Leviticus 21:9, Genesis 38:24, also see 1 Corinthians 6:13-18).
In the natural world, the females choose the males on account of their perceived merits, whereas the males offer themselves at large and take whatever they can get. But a male is built up by his female(s). He will derive his social statues from her and he will invest his life, skills and resources in her. A male animal which no female chooses will literally feel worthless and condemned to death and oblivion (rejected girls get together and eat sugar; rejected guys get beaten out of the way by other guys). Continuous rejection may drive a male to madness and will likely jump-start his survival mode, which in turn may drive him to acts of fierce violence.
Our verb describes a female who selects a male, has the male invest in her and derive his worth from her, and then moves to males which have not worked for her. This act will reduce the male to an oafish loaf of bread (Proverbs 6:26). Or it describes a woman who gives herself to a man without demanding this man's covenant, which reduces her to a loaf of bread.
The Bible's most famous prostitutes are: Tamar (who wasn't really one), Rahab of Jericho, Gomer the wife of Hosea, and of course Babylon the Great Whore who sits on many waters (Revelation 17:1, 19:2). In popular culture, Mary Magdalene is often depicted as a former prostitute, but that is conjectural.
There appears to be no real noun that means harlot or prostitute; for these functions the verb's participle form זונה (zuna) is frequently used (Genesis 34:31, 38:15, Deuteronomy 23:18, etcetera).
This verb's proper derivations are:
- The masculine plural noun זנונים (zenunim), meaning fornication(s): sexual (Genesis 38:24), political (Nahum 3:4), and theological (2 Kings 9:22, Ezekiel 23:11, Hosea 2:4). This noun appears to be cognate with an Assyrian word zananu, which means fill or full, which suggests that these words may be comparable to our English word "insatiable". The connection between the mental consumption of sexual, political or theological confirmation and the physical consumption of food may also be reflected in the morphological similarity between these words and the verb זון (zun), meaning to feed (see below).
- The feminine noun זנות (zenut), also meaning fornication: sexual (Hosea 4:11), political (Ezekiel 23:27), and theological (Numbers 14:33, Jeremiah 3:2, Ezekiel 43:7).
- The feminine noun תזנות (taznut), also meaning fornication, but only used by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:20-26, 23:7-43).
The verb זון (zun) occurs in cognate languages with meanings of being fed-full or sexually stimulated. In the Bible it appears only once, namely in Jeremiah 5:8, where Jerusalem's sons troop to the harlot's house to commit adultery; being well-fed horny horses, each one whooping after his neighbor's wife.
This verb has one derivative (or so it is assumed; some scholars maintain that this is a late Aramaic insertion), namely the masculine noun מזון (mazon), meaning food or sustenance (Genesis 45:23, 2 Chronicles 11:23 only).
The masculine noun זן (zan) is formally of unknown origin, but it obviously agrees with the dynamics described above. It occurs at two separate locations in the Bible: "May our store-houses be full of all kinds of stuff" (literally: from kind to kind; Psalm 144:1). And 2 Chronicles 16:14, the deceased king Asa is placed on a bed with an assortment of perfumes and spices.