They are mentioned at the return from the Exile and particularly enumerated in Ezra ii. and Neh. vii. The original form of the name was Nethunim, as in the Khetib (consonantal reading) of Ezra viii. 17 (cf. Numbers iii. 9), and means "given" or "dedicated," i.e. to the temple. The Talmud has also the singular form Nathin. In all, 612 Nethinim came back from the Exile and were lodged near the " House of the Nethinim " at Ophel, towards the east wall of Jerusalem so as to be near the Temple, where they served under the Levites and were free of all tolls, from which they must have been supported. It is mentioned that they had been ordered by David and the princes to serve the Levites (Ezra viii. 20).
Notwithstanding their sacred service, the Nethinim were regarded by later Jewish tradition as especially degraded, being placed in tables of precedence below bastards and in the Mishna it is stated that the prohibition against intermarriage with the Moabites, Ammonites, Egyptians and Edomites, though given in the Bible, only applied for a certain number of generations and did not apply at all to their daughters, but, it is added, "Bastards and Nethinim are prohibited (to marry Israelites), and this prohibition is perpetual and applies both to males and females."
To explain this combination of sacred service and exceptional degradation, it has been suggested by Joseph Jacobs that the Nethinim were the descendants of the Kedishoth, i.e. women dedicated to the worship of Astarte and attached to the Temple before the Exile. There is evidence of these practices from the time of Solomon (1 Kings xi. 5) down to Josiah (2 Kings xiii. 4-6), and even as late as Ezekiel (Ezek. xxiii. 36-48), giving rise to the command of Deuteronomy xxiii. 17.
An examination of the name lists given in duplicate in Ezra H. 43-58, Neh. vii. 46-59, together with the additional names in the Greek Esdras (v. 29-35), shows that the Nethinim were in charge of the rings and hooks connected with the temple service; they sheared the sheep offered for sacrifice in the temple and poured the libations. Some of them were derived from the wars with the Meunim; others from the campaign with Rezin of Damascus. One of the names given in 1 Esdras v. 34, υἱοὶ Σουβὰ, ed. Fritzsche, Σουβάϛ, ed. Henry Barclay Swete, would seem to throw light on the puzzling reading סובאים (A.V. "Sabeans," R.V. "Drunkards ") of Ezek. xxiii. 42, and if so would directly connect the list of the Nethinim with the degraded worship of Astarte in the Temple.
A large majority of the names of the parents mentioned seem to be feminine in form or meaning, and suggest that the Nethinim could not trace back to any definite paternity; and this is confirmed by the fact that the lists are followed by the enumeration of those who could not "show their father's house" (Ezra ii. 6o; Neh. vii. 62). The Greek versions, as well as Josephus, refer to them as ἱερόδουλοι, indicating their servile status.
The Talmudic authorities have an abstract term, Nethinuth, indicating the status of a Nathin, and corresponding to the abstract mamzeruth, "bastardy." The existence of this degraded class up to the Exile throws considerable light upon the phraseology of the prophets in referring to idolatry as adultery and the scenes connected with it as prostitution. Their continued existence as a pariah class after the Exile would be a perpetual reminder of the dangers and degradation of the most popular Syrian creed.
These unfortunate creatures had no alternative but to accept the provisions made for them out of the Temple treasury, but after the fall of the 'Temple they would naturally disappear by intermarriage with similar degraded classes (Mishna Kidd. viii. 3). In the Code of Hammurabi 191, 192, they could be adopted by outsiders.
The above explanation of the special degradation of the Nethinim, though they were connected with the Temple service, seems to be the only way of explaining the Talmudic reference to their tabooed position, and is an interesting example of the light that can be reflected on Biblical research by the Talmud.
See Joseph Jacobs, Studies in Biblical Archaeology (1894), 104-122; W Baudissin, Geschichte des Alttestamentlichen Priesterthums, 142 seq. This view, however, is not accepted by Cheyne, Encyclopaedia Biblica, s.v.