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the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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NETHINIM. The word is a late form of a passive participle nÄ•th ûnîm , and denotes ‘men who are given .’ In early days, when sacrifices were offered in the open air, there was little difficulty occasioned by the odour and dirt arising from the blood, fat, and ashes. But when they were offered within the walls of a temple, and offered with great frequency and with large numbers of victims, some very disagreeable drudgery was always necessary. The chopping of wood, lighting of fires, sharpening of knives, drawing of water, the cleansing not only of the altar and its surroundings and utensils, but of the whole of the Temple precincts, and the performance of many menial offices for the priests, required a large staff of servants. The analogy of other lands suggests that these offices would be performed by slaves, procured either by purchase or capture. The Greeks had hierodoutoi , ‘temple slaves,’ and the Mohammedans at Mecca similarly. It is not known at what date the practice arose in Israel; but there seem to have been three stages in the history of Temple servants. (1) They were slaves in the strict sense; (2) they were admitted to Israelite privileges, being circumcised, and treated as free men holding an official position in the Church; (3) they rose in standing and prestige so as to become practically equivalent to the Levites.

1 . The name Nethinim is not used before the Exile. Ezra 8:20 speaks of the Nethinim as those ‘whom David and the princes had given for the service of the Levites,’ which shows, at least, that common belief traced their origin back to David. A very similar class of persons, ‘the children of Solomon’s servants ,’ is mentioned in Ezra 2:55; Ezra 2:58 , Nehemiah 7:57; Nehemiah 7:60; Nehemiah 11:3; their descent was evidently traced to the non-Israelite slaves employed by Solomon in connexion with his buildings, some of whom must have laboured in the new royal sanctuary (cf. 1 Kings 9:19-21 ). This employment of foreign slaves in the Temple continued till the beginning of the Exile ( Ezekiel 44:6 f.).

2. A change in the status of these men was brought about by the Exile. When the people were far from the land, every one who had held any sort of position in the Temple must have gained a certain prestige. The former Temple-slaves seemed to have formed themselves into a guild. By the very fact of their exile, they were freed from their slavery to the Temple, and thus when they and their sons returned to Jerusalem, they returned as free men, who were recognized as part of the nation. As a guild, they acquired for themselves the title Nethinim, owing to their traditional origin. In Ezra 2:48-58; Ezra 2:70 = Nehemiah 7:46-58; Nehemiah 7:73 are given the names of the Nethinim who are reported to have returned with Zerubbabel; and they are mentioned together with priests, Levites, singers, and porters. Some of the names in the list are undoubtedly of foreign origin. Again, Ezra relates ( Ezra 8:20 ) that on his return, 220 Nethinim from Casiphia accompanied him. After a time we find them so completely established as a sacred official class, that privileges are accorded to them. They shared with priests, Levites, singers, and porters, immunity from taxation ( Ezra 7:24 ). They lived in a special quarter of the city, named Ophel, i.e . the southern and eastern slope of the Temple hill, or more particularly that part of it which reached to the Water-gate on the east, and to the tower projecting from the royal palace ( Nehemiah 3:28 ). They were thus near the Temple, and Bp. Ryle ( Ezra , etc., p. lviii) points out the appropriateness of assigning to ‘drawers of water’ the position by the Water-gate, which communicated with the Virgin’s Spring. And Nehemiah 3:31 mentions ‘the house of the Nethinim,’ which must have been an official building used by them during their periods of duty. They were under the command of two chiefs of whom one, at least, was a member of their own body Ziha and Gishpa ( Nehemiah 11:21 ); the former is the first in the list, in Ezra 2:45 = Nehemiah 7:48 , and Gishpa may possibly be the same as Hasupha, the second name. Further, only a portion of them, like the priests, Levites, singers, and porters, dwelt in Jerusalem; the others ‘dwelt in their cities’ ( Ezra 2:70 = Nehemiah 7:73 , 1 Chronicles 9:2 ). And so far were they from being regarded as foreign slaves, that they joined, as full members of the community, in the oath that they would not (among other things) allow their sons and daughters to marry any but Israelites ( Nehemiah 10:28-30 ).

3. From this point the Nethinim gradually rose in official position, until they were indistinguishable from the Levites. In 1 Chronicles 23:28 the Levites are spoken of in such a way as to suggest that the term included all Temple-servants. And conversely, since singers and doorkeepers (who are quite distinct from Levites in Ezr.-Neh.) were explicitly reckoned by the Chronicler as Levites ( 1 Chronicles 15:18; 1 Chronicles 26:1-19 ), it is probable that the same was the case with the Nethinim. Finally, in 1E Esther 1:3 the Levites, and in 1Es 8:22; 1Es 8:48 the Nethinim, are described by the same term, hierodoutoi .

A. H. M‘Neile.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nethinim'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​n/nethinim.html. 1909.
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