The LXX usually transliterates the word; at 1 Chronicles 9:2 it is tr. οἱ δεδομένοι. Josephus (Antiq. XI, 5, 1) calls them ἱερόδουμοι, “temple slaves.”
Ezra 8:20 gives the most specific clue to the origin of the Nethinim. That David should have given them to assist the Levites is in keeping with the general account of David’s organization of the Levitical services (1 Chron 23 and 24) in preparation for the Temple. Nethinim means “those who are given.” Just as the Levites as a whole were “wholly given” to the Lord from among the people of Israel (Num 8:16), so the Levites were given as a gift to Aaron and his sons (8:19). The word tr. “gift” is the passive participle of the verb and means “ones given,” close in form and meaning to Nethinim. David appears to have followed this pattern in assigning another group to assist the Levites. 1 Chronicles 9:2 gives the order: “Israel, the priests, the Levites, and Nethinim.” Nehemiah 11:3 gives the same order: “Israel, the priests, the Levites, the Nethinim, and the descendants of Solomon’s servants.” The singling out of an hereditary group, the descendants of Solomon’s servants, makes a natural parallel to the group originating with David.
Presumably the Nethinim were not Levites. Oehler (Old Testament Theology, p. 376) supposes, following Aben Ezra, that the Gibeonites were the original Nethinim (Josh 9:27).
After the depletion of the Gibeonites by Saul (2 Sam 21:1), there were given by David additional Nethinim for special service. Perhaps they were slaves acquired in war.
The fact that the Nethinim are not mentioned in the so-called P document is weighty evidence against the theory of the origin of that document in postexilic times. How could P fail to mention the Nethinim? “It is impossible to explain how a professional priestly group, manufacturing a spurious law of Moses for the purpose of justifying and enforcing their claims to special authority, could have failed to include Mosaic sanctions for any of these items. Nor, for that matter, is it explicable how J and E and D could have failed to mention items (1), (3) [the Nethinim], and (4), if they were in fact composed later than the reign of Solomon (970-931 b.c.), under whom the temple singers, Nethinim and musical instruments, were intimately involved in the temple cultus. It is therefore difficult to account for this astonishing silence about matters of peculiarly priestly interest, except upon the basis that P was in fact composed before Solomon’s time” (Archer, A Survey of O. T. Introduction, pp. 152, 153).
The Nethinim are mentioned almost entirely in Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra 2:43ff. lists the heads of families of the Nethinim who returned with Zerubbabel: Nethinim and the sons of Solomon’s servants totalled 392. The Nethinim lived in their own towns (v. 70). Under Ezra a contingent of Nethinim returned (Ezra 7:7), and were exempt from tax (v. 24). Ezra 8 gives the account of the muster in preparation for the return. Two hundred and twenty Nethinim were included (v. 20).
The Nethinim are mentioned in Nehemiah’s organization for rebuilding the wall. Nethinim lived on Ophel and repaired a portion of the wall (Neh 3:26). The repair work of Malchijah reached to the house of the Nethinim (v. 31). Batten (ICC, Ezra-Nehemiah, pp. 87ff.) thinks that v. 31 must be earlier than the writing of Chronicles and therefore attests the existence of the Nethinim before that time. They cannot be dismissed as part of an unhistorical reconstruction of the Chronicler.
Nethinim (Neh 10:28) are included among those who entered into covenant to devote themselves to God. They are mentioned also in Nehemiah’s account of his attempt to populate Jerusalem with pure Jews in accordance with the list of those who returned from Babylon (Neh 11:3, 21).
G. F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (1884); J. Taylor, “Nethinim” HDB III (1900), 519, 520; L. W. Batten, ICC, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (1913), 87ff.; I, Benzinger, ‘Nethinim,” IB (1914), cols. 3397-3400; T. K. Cheyne, “Solomon’s Servants, Children of,” IB (1914), col. 4690; C. Van Orelli, “Levites,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, VI, 466-468; J. S. Wright, “Nethinim,” The New Bible Dictionary (1962), 878, 879; G. L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (1964).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(nethinim, "given"; Natheineim; the King James Version Nethinims):
A group of temple-servants (1Ch 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 (1Ch 9:2) they render, "the given ones" (hoi dedomenoi). The Syriac (Peshitta) also, in Ezra, Nehemiah, transliterates the word, but in 1Ch 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" (Nu 3:9; compare also Nu 8:16,19).
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 BC (Ezr 2:58 equals Ne 7:60). When Ezra, some 80 years later, organized the second Return, he secured a contingent of Nethinim numbering 220 (Ezr 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 (Ezr 7:24). A part of the city in Ophel, opposite the Water-gate, was assigned them as an official residence (Ne 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 (Ne 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