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Gibeonites and Nethinim


GIBEONITES AND NETHINIM (Heb. גִּבְעֹנִים, נְתִינִים). The Gibeonites, residents of four important cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem, feared that they might share the fate of Jericho and Ai, which were destroyed by the Israelites, and tricked *Joshua into a treaty that would spare them (Josh. 9). Had Joshua known that these people were actually Canaanites whom he was pledged to dispossess, he would not have concluded a treaty with them, but the Gibeonites had disguised themselves as coming from a distant land, and had made overtures of devotion to the God of Israel. As they were returning to their nearby cities, the ruse was discovered, but by that time the Israelites were bound by the treaty, and could not drive them out or destroy their cities, which were strategically located to control access to Jerusalem and the roads through the Judean mountains. As a result of this treaty, five Canaanite rulers immediately formed a coalition under the king of Jerusalem and attacked Gibeon. Under the terms of the treaty, the Gibeonites called upon Joshua to come to their aid, and he routed the Canaanite coalition (Josh. 10; cf. 11:19). Thus deceived by the Gibeonites, the Israelites adopted an alternative measure, that of forced labor: "On that day Joshua gave them over to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for the assembly and for the altar of the Lord until this day, at the place which He will choose" (Josh. 9:27). The Gibeonites appear again in connection with a famine during the reign of *David (ii Sam. 21). David learned that the famine was a punishment for an offense committed by *Saul, who had put a number of Gibeonites to death out of zeal for Israel and Judah, but in violation of Israel's ancient oath. In expiation, David was obliged to hang seven of Saul's descendants on a hill at Gibeath-Shaul, where Saul had resided, and where at least some of his descendants undoubtedly still lived.

The designation Nethinim is derived from the Hebrew verb natan ("to give over"), which can mean devoting someone to cultic service. The verb is used in this sense with respect to Joshua's action toward the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:27, where cultic servitude is involved ("for the altar of the Lord"). The Book of Ezra (8:20) states that David and his commanders "devoted" (Heb. natan) the Nethinim "to the service of the *levites" which may reflect the ancient practice of committing captives and conquered peoples to temple slavery, which was a widespread phenomenon in the ancient Near East. The Bible itself offers other indications of its operation in ancient Israel. Many modern scholars consider that such was the status of the Nethinim, and cite certain data in support of this view. The Nethinim are listed together with "the sons of the servants of Solomon" in the census of Israelites returning from Babylonia in about 538 b.c.e. (Ezra 2 = Nehemiah 7), and the latter are generally considered to have been royal slaves. Furthermore, a large number of foreign names in the list of Nethinim suggests that they were captives of war.

There are, however, counterindications. It is possible that "servants of Solomon" were not slaves but royal merchants (see: Servants of *Solomon). The verb natan, discussed above, need not necessarily imply servitude, but was used to designate other types of cultic devotion as well. It was applied to the levites, who were hardly temple slaves, and was used to characterize a relationship to the cultic establishment which was primarily administrative and religious; one not based on the economic institution of temple property, under which temple slaves are to be classified.

A later tradition identifies the Gibeonites of Joshua's time with the Nethinim mentioned in the post-Exilic literature. This tradition probably arose in Palestine during the late Hellenistic or early Roman period, at a time when the Jews had become familiar with temple slavery among the pagans, especially in the form of sacred prostitution. It was probably known to the historian Josephus of the first Christian century who translates the term Nethinim in Ezra, chapter 2, by the Greek term hierodoulos (from δούλοι ʿιεροί, "sacred slaves"). On the other hand, it probably arose after the completion of the Septuagint translation to the Bible which never renders Nethinim as hierodoulos, but either translates the term literally into Greek as dedomenoi (so in i Chron. 9:2), or uses Greek transcriptions of the original Hebrew term. Modern scholarship, though recognizing that identification of the Gibeonites with the Nethinim represents a later tradition, nevertheless tends to accept the identification of the Nethinim as "uncircumcised" temple personnel, such as those referred to by Ezekiel (44:7). Conclusive clarification of the exact social status and precise cultic functions of the Nethinim must await further evidence, but the possibility that they represented a guild of free cultic practitioners should not be disregarded.

i Chronicles 9:1–2 states that in the days of David the Nethinim were among the first settlers in the land, but they are never actually mentioned in the pre-Exilic books of Samuel and Kings, nor in any other biblical book presumed to be pre-Exilic. Some scholars claim that this term occurs in Numbers 3:9 and 8:19, which speaks of the dedication of the levites; however, this is unlikely, and it is better to take the repeated netunim netunim ("devoted, yea, devoted") as mere passive participles. Although Ezra 8:20 associates the Nethinim with the levites, they are left as two separate groups elsewhere in the Bible (cf. Ezra 2; 7:7; Neh. 10:29; 11:3; i Chron. 9:2). However, there is evidence to support the tradition of i Chronicles 9 concerning the pre-Exilic existence of the Nethinim. A hoard of Hebrew ostraca dating from the last days of the kingdom of Judah has been uncovered at the site of ancient *Arad in the Negev, where an Israelite sanctuary was in use throughout most of the pre-Exilic period. An official named "the Kerosite" appears in one of the ostraca. The personal name Keros otherwise occurs only once, and that in the list of Nethinim in Ezra 2:44 (= Neh. 7:47): "the sons of Keros." Therefore it is probable that the Kerosite at Arad was a member of a group of Nethinim, who would logically be located at a sanctuary. If true, this would be the first contemporary attestation of the existence of Nethinim in the pre-Exilic period. Evidence of a comparative nature also suggests that the Nethinim were a very ancient group. The administrative archives at Ugarit have yielded a list of ytnm, the Ugaritic form of Hebrew nethinim (C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Text-Book, 301:1, 1). They are also mentioned in a poetic ritual text (ibid., 52:3) and it is reasonable to consider them some sort of cultic personnel, as in Palestine. One of the families or groups of ytnm at Ugarit had the same name as a group of Nethinim listed in Ezra (cf. Ugaritic bn ḥgby, ibid., 301:2, 5 with benei Hagab, Hagabah in Ezra 2:45–46). It is therefore possible that the Nethinim were an international group of persons skilled in certain cultic arts, who had attached themselves to the Israelites at an early period. The manner in which they are listed suggests that they were organized according to family groups, as was customary.

Akkadian sources also throw light on the semantic and institutional background of the Nethinim. Neo-Babylonian documents refer to members of a religious order dedicated to the service of different Babylonian deities, called širku, "devotees, oblates" (from Akk. šarāku, "to give, present"). This word is the semantic equivalent of the Hebrew Nethinim, and the members of both orders were temple servitors (Speiser). The Bible provides several more references to the Nethinim which are instructive. About the middle of the fifth century b.c.e. Ezra recruited Nethinim along with other personnel preparatory to his return to Judah (Ezra 7:7, 24; 8:1–20). Nehemiah 3 describes the resettlement of Jerusalem, whose recruited population of skilled persons included Nethinim. In about 438 b.c.e. the leaders of the people convoked a great assembly in Jerusalem to ratify a new covenant (Neh. 10:1–40), and the Nethinim were among the principal signatories (10:29; cf. 11:3). Only bona fide Israelites would have been admitted to the covenant, especially at a time when there was great concern in rooting out foreign strains from the community.

[Baruch A. Levine]

Post-Biblical Period

Nothing more is heard of the Nethinim until they appear in the legislation of the Mishnah which classes them with proselytes, freedmen, mamzerim, waifs, and foundlings with whom alone they are permitted to intermarry (Kid. 4:1). The Mishnah (Hor. 3:8), however, classifies the Nethinim as being one level lower than mamzerim but preceding proselytes and freedmen. They were regarded as the descendants of the Gibeonites (Yev. 78b–79a) and the prohibition in their marrying Jews of pure pedigree as having been established by King David (ibid. 78b) and reconfirmed by Ezra (Num. R. 8:4). It is impossible to explain this loss of status since the days of Nehemiah. It is possible that, in employing the classification Nethinim, the talmudic sages did not have the actual biblical group in mind at all, but merely reapplied an ancient term to contemporary groups of declassed persons who were the subject of their own legislation, thus stigmatizing them with traditional associations. An attempt by the rabbis to abolish the inferior status of the Nethinim was rejected by Judah ha-Nasi on the grounds that when the Temple was rebuilt it would be deprived of hewers of wood and drawers of water, and the matter was relegated to "the time to come" (Yev. 79b). Maimonides, too, regards the Nethinim as the descendants of the Gibeonites (Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 12:23–24).

Gibeonites in the Aggadah

Although the Gibeonites deserved no better fate than all the rest of the Canaanite nations, in that the covenant made with them was obtained through subterfuge, Joshua nevertheless kept his promise to them, in order to show the world the sanctity of an oath to Israel (Git. 46a). He hesitated to defend them when they were attacked, but God reminded him, "If you estrange those who are distant you will ultimately estrange also those who are near" (Num. R. 8:4). In the course of time it became obvious that the Gibeonites were not worthy of being received into the Jewish fold and Joshua, therefore, left their fate to be decided by the one who was to build the Temple (tj, Sanh. 6:9, 23c–d).

During David's reign Israel suffered from a drought which was ascertained to be God's punishment for the murder of seven Gibeonites by the descendants of Saul. When David sought to make restitution through ransom, the Gibeonites firmly refused, insisting upon lives from the household of Saul. This cold-bloodedness clearly demonstrated to David the absence in the Gibeonite character of Israel's three basic attributes – mercy, humility, and benevolence – and he consequently excluded them from the assembly of Israel (tj, Kid. 4:1, 65c). Ezra renewed the edict, which is to be in force even in the Messianic era (ibid.).


B.A. Levine, in: jbl, 82 (1963), 207–12 (incl. bibl.); idem, in: iej, 19 (1969), 49–51; M. Haran, in: vt, 11 (1961), 159–69; E.A. Speiser, in: iej, 13 (1963), 69–73; Ginzberg, Legends, index.

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