Mysteries Of The Bible: Who Are The Nethinim?

Earlier today, as I write this, I received a message with a question from a loyal reader of mine:  “Hi, any chance you might be interested in doing a post on the Nathanim … I mean the Nethinim (Ezra 8:20)? 😉 Could they be related to Nathan the prophet?”  In order to detail this mystery it is worthwhile to answer the two questions in turn.  The second question is the easiest to answer but perhaps the least satisfying.  No genealogical information is given about Nathan the prophet, and so we have no idea who Nathan himself was descended from.  It is entirely possible that he was descended from the Nethinim, although it is more likely that the similarity in the names comes from a similarity in meanings.

Let us turn to this issue next.  Nathan itself is a personal name that is relatively common, and it has a long set of meanings generally related to gift or giving [1].  According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the meaning of Nethinim is very similar, as one would expect:  ”

NETHINIM:

Temple officials. They are first heard of as returning from Babylon to Palestine, after the Exile, in two batches, one numbering 392, the second 220 (Ezra ii. 58, viii. 20). A list of the families composing the first batch is given twice—in Ezra ii. and Neh. vii.; the second batch came from a place in Persia called Casiphia and were persuaded to come by their “brother” Iddo. They were placed “in Ophel, . . . over against the water gate toward the cast, and the tower that lieth out” (Neh. iii. 26), and mention is made of “the house of Nethinim” (Neh. iii. 31, R. V.). They served under the Levites in the Temple, and were accordingly freed from all tolls (Ezra vii. 24). It is said that they had been appointed by David and the princes to serve the Levites.

In Talmudic times the Nethinim were put on a level with bastards, and their descendants, male and female, were interdicted from marriage with Israelites for all time (Yeb. ii. 4, viii. 3); this is said to have been established by David (Yeb. 78b) or by Ezra (Num. R. viii.). Nethinim were allowed to marry only proselytes, freedmen, bastards, and foundlings (Ḳid. viii. 3). In tables of precedence they are reckoned very low, coming after bastards in Yer. Hor. iii. 5 and Yer. Yeb., viii. 5.

This union of sacred service and social ostracism has led to the suggestion that the Nethinim were the descendants of the Ḳedeshot, or sacred prostitutes; and it may be pointed out that in the list in Ezra ii. there is a large number of feminine forms, as well as in the extra list contained in the Book of Esdras (v. 53-58). This latter list contains a reference to the “Bene Souba,” with which may be compared the “Soba’im” of Ezek. xxiii. 42 (Hebr.). Both the Septuagint and Josephus refer to the Nethinim as “Hieroduli,” which seems to imply that they were Ḳedeshot.

Cheyne (s.v. “Solomon’s Servants”) suggests that the Nethinim were really Ethanites. He regards the low status given to the Nethinim in the Talmud as due to their being confused with the Gibeonites (Yeb. ii. 4; Ḳid. iv. 1).

Bibliography:

  • Jacobs, The Nethinim, in Studies in Biblical Archœology, pp. 104-22.”

It is not our concern what the Talmud says about the Nethinim, because even the entry above written by people more sympathetic to the Talmud than I am say that there was confusion in the low status of the Levites’ servants there which seems to echo the low opinion the non-priestly Levites in general were viewed in that may have contributed to so few Levites returning to Jerusalem from the exile.  That said, we are very concerned about what the Bible has to say about these people.  And for a group as obscure as the Nethinim, the Bible does have a fair amount to say.  Let us look at all of the passages that refer to this group of people, all of which appear in the Hebrew scriptures, in 1 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, all of which are a coherent and post-exilic set of books.

One reference to the Nethinim comes in 1 Corinthians 9:2, which reads:  “And the first inhabitants who dwelt in their possessions in their cities were Israelites, priests, Levites, and the Nethinim.”  This reference tells us nothing more than the fact that the Nethinim were a group of people who lived in various cities of Israel that were associated with the priests and Levites.  So far so good.

Ezra 2:43-70 contains three references by name to the Nethinim and provides more information about them:  “The Nethinim: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, the sons of Keros, the sons of Siaha, the sons of Padon, the sons of Lebanah, the sons of Hagabah, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hagab, the sons of Shalmai, the sons of Hanan, the sons of Giddel, the sons of Gahar, the sons of Reaiah, the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda, the sons of Gazzam, the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, the sons of Asnah, the sons of Meunim, the sons of Nephusim, the sons of Bakbuk, the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur, the sons of Bazluth, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Tamah, the sons of Neziah, and the sons of Hatipha.  The sons of Solomon’s servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Sophereth, the sons of Peruda, the sons of Jaala, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth of Zebaim, and the sons of Ami.  All the Nethinim and the children of Solomon’s servants were three hundred and ninety-two.  And these were the ones who came up from Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer; but they could not identify their father’s house or their genealogy, whether they were of Israel:  the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, and the sons of Nekoda, six hundred and fifty-two; and of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Koz, and the sons of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name.  These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but they were not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled.  And the governor said to them that they should not eat of the most holy things till a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim.  The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred hundred and sixty,  besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred men and women singers.  Their horses were seven hundred and thirty-six, their mules two hundred and forty-five, their camels four hundred and thirty-five, and their donkeys six thousand seven hundred and twenty.  Some of the heads of the fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, offered freely for the house of God, to erect it in its place:  According to their ability, they gave to the treasury for the work sixty-one thousand gold drachmas, five thousand minas of silver, and one hundred priestly garments.  So the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.”  Again, we see here the Nethinim connected with others, in this case the servants of Solomon, given that the Nethinim were involved in service to the temple, albeit of a more humble kind than that done by the Priests and Levites.

The Nethinim are next referred to in Ezra 7:1-10 referring to those who were involved in the efforts of Ezra to teach the children of Judah who had returned from captivity:  “Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, the son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest—this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him.  Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes.  And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.  On the first day of the first month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him.  For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

Later on in this chapter, we find out that the Nethinim are part of a class of people that cannot lawfully be taxed, in Ezra 7:24:  “Also we inform you that it shall not be lawful to impose tax, tribute, or custom on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim, or servants of this house of God.”  Here again we see that the Nethinim are a privileged class because of their servants of the house of God in the same level as singers, gatekeepers, and other servants of the temple.  We get a similar picture in Ezra 8:15-20 when we are told the following about the Nethinim:  “Now I gathered them by the river that flows to Ahava, and we camped there three days. And I looked among the people and the priests, and found none of the sons of Levi there.  Then I sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, leaders; also for Joiarib and Elnathan, men of understanding.  And I gave them a command for Iddo the chief man at the place Casiphia, and I told them what they should say to Iddo and his brethren the Nethinim at the place Casiphia—that they should bring us servants for the house of our God.  Then, by the good hand of our God upon us, they brought us a man of understanding, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, the son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and brothers, eighteen men; and Hashabiah, and with him Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, his brothers and their sons, twenty men; also of the Nethinim, whom David and the leaders had appointed for the service of the Levites, two hundred and twenty Nethinim. All of them were designated by name.”

When we get to the book of Nehemiah we see that the Nethinim were among those who were busy working on the walls under Nehemiah’s leadership, and that they even had a house in the city for that group of people, as we can see from Nehemiah 3:26-31:  “Moreover the Nethinim who dwelt in Ophel made repairs as far as the place in front of the Water Gate toward the east, and on the projecting tower.  After them the Tekoites repaired another section, next to the great projecting tower, and as far as the wall of Ophel.  Beyond the Horse Gate the priests made repairs, each in front of his own house. After them Zadok the son of Immer made repairs in front of his own house. After him Shemaiah the son of Shechaniah, the keeper of the East Gate, made repairs.  After him Hananiah the son of Shelemiah, and Hanun, the sixth son of Zalaph, repaired another section. After him Meshullam the son of Berechiah made repairs in front of his  dwelling.  After him Malchijah, one of the goldsmiths, made repairs as far as the house of the Nethinim and of the merchants, in front of the Miphkad Gate, and as far as the upper room at the corner. “

Nehemiah 7 provides us with the genealogy of the Nethinim, from Nehemiah 7:46-60:  “The Nethinim: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, the sons of Keros, the sons of Sia, the sons of Padon, the sons of Lebana, the sons of Hagaba, the sons of Salmai, the sons of Hanan, the sons of Giddel, the sons of Gahar, the sons of Reaiah, the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda, the sons of Gazzam, the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, the sons of Meunim, the sons of Nephishesim, the sons of Bakbuk, the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur, the sons of Bazlith, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Tamah, the sons of Neziah, and the sons of Hatipha.  The sons of Solomon’s servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Sophereth, the sons of Perida, the sons of Jaala, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth of Zebaim,and the sons of Amon.  All the Nethinim, and the sons of Solomon’s servants, were three hundred and ninety-two.”  And again we see in Nehemiah 7:73:  “ So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the Nethinim, and all Israel dwelt in their cities”

Nehemiah 10:28 tells us that the Nethinim were among those who made a covenant regarding the obedience to God’s laws:  “Now the rest of the people—the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the Nethinim, and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, and their daughters, everyone who had knowledge and understanding—”  And finally, Nehemiah 11 gives two locations about where the Nethinim lived.  First, Nehemiah 11:3 tells us:  “These are the heads of the province who dwelt in Jerusalem. (But in the cities of Judah everyone dwelt in his own possession in their cities—Israelites, priests, Levites, Nethinim, and descendants of Solomon’s servants.)”  After this, the Nethinim’s dwelling place is specified in verse 21, which says:  “But the Nethinim dwelt in Ophel. And Ziha and Gishpa were over the Nethinim.”

So, what does all of this tell us about the Nethinim?  Well, the Bible tells us over and over again that the Nethinim were servants of the temple, and that as temple servants they shared with the priests and Levites exemption from taxes and were put in the same category of Solomon’s servants as well as the Levite singers and gatekeepers.  Other than that, though, the Bible does not give us a lot of hints about who these people are descended from, as it would appear that many of the names are non-Israelite.  Rezin was the name of a Syrian monarch who, along with Pekah, attempted to overthrow Ahaz and replace him with a puppet king who would support their efforts against Assyria.  Sisera was the name of the Gentile commander of the chariots of Hazor.  Of course, the people referred to here may not be related to those ones, but all the same the names of the Nethinim appear not to be Israelite, but rather names of Gentile servants of the temple.  More than that is impossible to say with any certainty.  But is it necessary to know more about people’s backgrounds when we know that they were faithful servants of the House of God?  This is especially important because we know that the servants were looked down by later generations of Jewish thinkers who viewed these loyal servants of the house of God as a lower category than bastards , on the same level as ritual prostitutes.

[1] My mother, who along with my father gave me this name, shared a much longer list of the meanings of Nathan that is worth sharing including its Strong’s number:  “(5414) nathan; “a primary root; to give—add, apply, appoint, ascribe assign, avenge, be (healed), bestow, bring forth or hither, cast, cause, charge, come, commit, consider, count, cry, deliver (up, direct, distribute, do, doubtless, without fail, fasten, frame, get, give (forth, over, up), grant, hang (up,) have, indeed, lay (unto, charge, up), (give) leave, lend, let (out), lie, lift up, make, O that, occupy, offer, ordain, pay, perform, place, pour, print, pull, put (forth), recompense, render, requite, restore, send out), set (forth); show, shoot forth or up, sing, slander, strike, submit, suffer, surely, take, thrust, trade, turn, utter, weep, willingly, withdraw, would to God, yield.””

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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