Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
אתן יתן תנה
There are two separate roots of the form תנה (tnh) in Biblical Hebrew, although their meanings seem quite adjacent. Then there are verbs יתן (ytn) and אתן ('tn), which might relate to the previous two:
The verb יתן (ytn) does not occur in the Bible but in cognate languages it denotes permanence or perpetuity, especially of water. The only extant Hebrew derivative of this root is the adjective אתן or איתן ('etan), meaning perennial or ever-flowing. This word refers to wadies that never run dry, which is of course an important feature in a dry land such as Palestine, but it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for God's never ceasing mercies (Deuteronomy 21:4, Amos 5:24, Psalm 74:15, Micah 6:2). This word occurs 13 times in the Bible.
The noun אתון ('aton) describes a female donkey or she-ass. The etymology of this word is unclear, but technically it could be expected to derive from a verb אתן ('atan), which is spelled identical to the previous adjective. No such verb exists in Hebrew, and it seems that a Hebrew audience might rather make the intuitive connection to the previous and following groups of words.
Beasts of burden were a prominent feature in the old world, but not all beasts of burden were equal. In fact, in the old world one's mode of transportation was as telling as the clothes one wore, and in Biblical stories it's therefore often crucially important which particular beast a person rides.
Horses were like modern jeeps in that they were strongly associated with the military. Camels were like modern trucks and strongly associated with international trade. Oxen, our tractors and lorries, were associated with heavy farm work or local commerce. And donkeys were like Volkswagens and campers: predominantly associated with the getting around of private people.
Donkeys did not particularly transport goods or military force, but rather private people who felt the need to travel to other private people and associate for whatever reason (Genesis 12:16, Job 1:3, 1 Samuel 9:3). The donkey was strongly associated with a social network, and ultimately with social wealth. It signified peace, freedom and the perennial flow of ideas, services, stories and expressions of friendship. This is why the King of Israel came riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9, Mark 11:3), as his rule is not one of might but one of individual freedom (Galatians 5:1).
The verb תנה (tana) means to hire. The connotation of this verb seems disproportionately often negative, and usually having to do with prostitution. But it should be noted that even though nowadays we recoil in horror at the thought of prostitution, back in Biblical times the prostitute was one of the few social archetypes. In the same way that a king could be known as a father (of all his people), and the nation as the mother (hence motherland), and the citizens as the sons, so a certain specific society could be known as a prostitute.
Obviously, this could be a society with many sons but typically no husband, that means no central government. Instead, this sort of society sways every which way the gettings are gotten, with no social identity or formal legislation or even military protection.
In Hosea 2:14, Israel contemplates wages that her lovers have given her. Similarly, in Hosea 8:9-10, Ephraim has hired lovers, and those lovers hire allies among the nations.
This verb's only derivative, the feminine noun אתנה ('etna) means reward or hire, and occurs in Hosea 2:14. Only through its appearance in Psalm 8:2 may we learn that this verb is not only applicable to negative situations; David exclaims how majestic YHWH's name is in all the earth, and how he has displayed his splendor above the heavens.
The similar verb תנה (tana II) occurs a mere two times, although relations with the action of the other verb tana, especially as used in Psalm 8:2, seem obvious. In Judges 5:11, those who divide the flocks also recount the righteous deeds of YHWH. And, similarly, in Judges 11:40, the daughters of Israel commemorate the unfortunate daughter of Jephthah of Gilead.
The root תנן (tanan I, in most dictionaries listed as II) isn't used as verb in the Bible but it obviously has to do with the above. Its sole derivation is the masculine noun אתנן ('etnan), which is closely similar to the feminine noun אתנה ('etna), and denotes the hire of a harlot (Ezekiel 16:34, Hosea 9:1, Micah 1:7).
The root תנן (tanan II, in most dictionaries listed as I) also isn't used as verb in the Bible, so we're at a loss what it might have meant. BDB Theological Dictionary carefully suggests that our verb תנן (tanan) may have in common with תנה (tana II) a kind of loud vocalizing: to lament or howl. This would explain our verb's first derivative, namely תן (tan), which perhaps denotes the jackal, which obviously howls. But it collides rather inelegantly with the second derivative, namely תנין (tannin), which denotes a class of aquatic creature, few of which are known to howl.
Here at Abarim Publications we disagree with BDB, and surmise that this whole root cluster has to do with a luring and scavenging. Abstractly, our cluster describes creatures without a "husband" (without a centralizing dedication), which any wind can blow or which may migrate to wherever the gettings are to be gotten. These creatures obtain their gettings by enticing the rightful owners into giving them up, which in turn results in the death of the latter, or else by scavenging already available carrion.
In human culture, this phenomenon obviously occurs in the oldest profession: a prostitute lures someone with promises of pleasure and such, and takes that person's cash and sends him on his way depleted of stamina and valor and for evermore unable to enjoy those moments of true surrender that occupies almost all of mankind's art ("her tracks lead to the dead; none who go to her return again, nor do they reach the paths of life" — Proverbs 2:17-18). But the same mechanism is evident in the drug trade, where grand promises lead to total ruin, and appears barely diluted in the pervasive fields of commercial advertizing and political propaganda.
This same conceptual principle became brilliantly personified in Greek mythology as the Sirens — in his Vulgate, Jerome even translated the plural of our word תן in Isaiah 13:22 rather helpfully with sirenae, to the chagrin of later commentators who understood neither the Greek Sirens nor the Hebrew tanim. In the biosphere we see this principle applied by sweet-smelling and lavishly colored but quite carnivorous plants, and even those freaky deep-sea fish that dangle their bioluminescent lures right in front of their dark, gaping mauls.
In the cultural world too we find subcultures that are based on nothing other than the utter devotion of its adherers. Sects around items or ideas from which no energy flows are kept going because believers have willingly taken leave of the very quality that defines homo sapiens, and keep claiming results rather than testify to the inertia of their convictions — hence the plethora of healing stones, magic symbols, potent waters, but also known sects or exhaustively elaborated conspiracy theories, certain religions and ultimately this whole ridiculous western culture that's presently slithering its way forth, devouring all others, with its lures, deceptions and enslaving liberties (Revelation 17:5).
The key characteristics of any kind of tanan are that (a) it is based on folly or deception, and (b) it absorbs its acolytes whole and entirely voids their self-determination. The key characteristics of any Yahwistic organization are that (a) it is based on verifiable truths or fertile determination and will instruct acolytes in knowledge that they can verify outside of that organization, and (b) invites acolytes to make up their own mind and invest their own time and money according to their own insights. Your tanan will sport elaborate rituals, strata to distinguish the elite from the neophytes, esoteric knowledge and secret handshakes and all that. Your Yahwistic organization will be wholly translucent.
As noted above, our root comes with the following two derivations:
- The masculine noun תן (tan), which obviously denotes a kind of (semi-)solitary scavenger; an animal that abides to very little social graces and concentrates largely on dead, dying or sufficiently weak creatures to devour. Note that the ancients didn't organize their world as we do, in specific species and kinds, but rather in behaviors, which means that the תן (tan) didn't denote a particular genus but rather a modus operandi that might be shared by multiple creatures. The תן (tan) is most often mentioned along the בת היענה (bat heya'na) as one of the creatures that proverbially inhabit ruins and waste places. Our word is often translated with jackal (Isaiah 13:22, Jeremiah 14:6, Micah 1:8).
- The masculine noun תנין (tanin) too describes a targeting the dead or weak for food, but appears to be applicable to nations and their systems of belief (which in turn are mostly depicted as aquatic and serpentine in nature; see Genesis 1:21). Of nations lacking in counsel, their wine is said to be the venom of תנינם (taninim) but he who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will confidently tread on them (Psalm 91:13). Aaron's staff became one, and so did the staffs of the wise men of Egypt (Exodus 7:9-12, also see Isaiah 51:9 for Rahab the tanin, or Ezekiel 29:3, "the great tanin that lies in [Egypt's] rivers," as well as Ezekiel 32:2). Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon devoured Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51:34) as a tanin. Job asked God if he was the sea, or perhaps its native tanin, which appears to also refer to the Leviathan that YHWH would later bring into the discussion (Job 7:12 versus Job 41, also see Isaiah 27:1, where Leviathan is classified as a tanin). The Psalmist mentions the Lord breaking the heads of the tanin in the waters (Psalm 74:13), but in the end, even the great tanin and all the deeps will be compelled to praise YHWH (Psalm 149:7).