International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
neth'-i-nim (nethinim, "given"; Natheineim; the King James Version Nethinims):
A group of temple-servants (1 Chronicles 9:2 and 16 times in Ezra and Nehemiah). The word has always the article, and does not occur in the singular. The Septuagint translators usually transliterate, but in one passage (1 Chronicles 9:2) they render, "the given ones" (hoi dedomenoi). The Syriac (Peshitta) also, in Ezra, Nehemiah, transliterates the word, but in 1 Chronicles 9:2 renders it by a word meaning "sojourners." The meaning "given" is suggestive of a state of servitude, and Josephus seems to confirm the suggestion by calling the Nethinim "temple-slaves" (hierodouloi) (Ant., XI, v, 1). It should, however, be noted that another form of this word is employed in the directions regarding the Levites: "Thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him on behalf of the children of Israel" (Numbers 3:9; compare also Numbers 8:16, 19).
Of the history of the Nethinim in earlier times there are but few and uncertain traces. When Joshua discovered that he had been beguiled by the Gibeonites into a covenant to let them live, he reduced their tribe to servitude, and declared, "Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall never fail to be of you bondsmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God" (Joshua 9:23, 27). It is no doubt tempting to see in the Gibeonites the earliest Nethinim, but another tradition traces their origin to a gift of David and the princes for the service of the Levites (Ezra 8:20). Their names, too, indicate diversity of origin; for besides being mostly un-Hebrew in aspect, some of them are found elsewhere in the Old Testament as names of non-Israelitish tribes. The Meunim, for example (Ezra 2:50 equals Nehemiah 7:52), are in all likelihood descended from the Meonites or Maonites who are mentioned as harassing Israel (Judges 10:12), as in conflict with the Simeonites (1 Chronicles 4:41), and as finally overcome by Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:7). The next name in the lists is that of the children of Nephisim. These may be traced to the Hagrite clan of Naphish (Genesis 25:15 1 Chronicles 5:19). In both Ezra and Nehemiah, the list is immediately followed by that of the servants of Solomon, whose duties were similar to, it may be even humbler than, those of the Nethinim. These servants of Solomon appear to be descendants of the Canaanites whom Solomon employed in the building of his temple (1 Kings 5:15). All these indications are perhaps slight; but they point in the same direction, and warrant the assumption that the Nethinim were originally foreign slaves, mostly prisoners of war, who had from time to time been given to the temple by the kings and princes of the nation, and that to them were assigned the lower menial duties of the house of God.
3. Post-exilic History:
At the time of the return from the exile the Nethinim had come to be regarded as important. Their number was considerable: 392 accompanied Zerubbabel at the first Return in 538 B.C. (Ezra 2:58 equals Nehemiah 7:60). When Ezra, some 80 years later, organized the second Return, he secured a contingent of Nethinim numbering 220 (Ezra 8:20). In Jerusalem they enjoyed the same privileges and immunities as the other religious orders, being included by Artaxerxes' letter to Ezra among those who should be exempt from toll, custom and tribute (Ezra 7:24). A part of the city in Ophel, opposite the Water-gate, was assigned them as an official residence (Nehemiah 3:26, 31), and the situation is certainly appropriate if their duties at all resembled those of the Gibeonites (see Ryle, "Ezra and Nehemiah," in Cambridge Bible, Intro, 57). They were also organized into a kind of guild under their own leaders or presidents (Nehemiah 11:21).
The Nethinim are not again mentioned in Scripture. It is probable that they, with the singers and porters, became gradually incorporated in the general body of Levites; their name passed ere long into a tradition, and became at a later time a butt for the scorn and bitterness of the Talmudic writers against everything that they regarded as un-Jewish.
John A. Lees