My attention came, in recent reading in Ezra, to a group of temple attendants known as the Nethinim, a name meaning the "given ones." Our masculine name "Nathan" comes from the verb root of this same word and means "to give or dedicate." And as such they were formally given by King David to the Levites (temple attendants) to help with the more menial tasks of the sanctuary like removing refuse, cutting wood, and carrying wood and water. Tradition holds that they were initially the Gibeonites (Joshua Chapter 9) whom Israel had defeated in battle and to whom they had been tricked to swear allegiance. Whether or not this was the origin of the Nethinim, we do know that their ranks were indeed enlarged later with those from other nations who were taken captive in battle.
Later in the Exile in Babylon where there was no Jewish Temple, the demarcation between Nethinim and other Levites became less distinct and the Nethinim began to be assimilated upward in class. My mind goes in several directions meditating on the fact that theirs were the most menial of tasks, that someone had to do, but that most were inclined to leave undone in favor of "more important work." Think of Jesus washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper to set an example, no one else had volunteered to do it. It was a task reserved for the lowest of house servants. Fast forward more than seventeen hundred centuries to the days of John and Charles Wesley at Oxford University where they established the student group mockingly dubbed the "Holy Club" by observers, but which was such a vital seedbed for the Great Awakening. George Whitefield, who later introduced the Wesleys to preaching in the open air, was also a member of that club, but on a somewhat different level. Because he could not entirely afford Oxford, he attended with the status of servant-student known as a "servitor" working his way through doing menial tasks in behalf of the other more privileged students, like carrying their books and taking out their garbage, and even helping them with self-care tasks like bathing and getting dressed. These servant-students were a sort of latter day class of Nethinim.
I believe there was a mysterious kind of pleasure Jesus took in that foot washing similar to the pleasure Whitefield could've felt in his lowly chores. (It was perhaps because of this subtle joy creeping into his backbreaking toil in the labor camp that Russian dissenter Alexander Solzhenitsyn could say before his death that he was more heartbroken by being booed at Harvard for his exhortation to return to God, than by his time in the Soviet prison/gulag.)
Recently I was telling someone in a public place how I had helped to pay my college expenses by working as a janitor. I recounted how I had experienced one of the most powerful divine visitations of my life as I was listening to a praise tape (in those days) while huddled on my knees on the cold tile floor cleaning a toilet bowl. Under my tears and prostrate body the tile didn't stay cold for long. Reminds me how D.L.Moody used to say how he learned as a shoe salesman that God's best gifts rest on the lowest shelves, not the ones he had to stand on his tiptoes to reach! Anyway, as I related the toilet bowl experience I noticed a janitor (more commonly known nowdays as a maintenance engineer or custodial technician) pausing at the door of the men's room nearby with his cart, about to enter and begin cleaning. He lingered there several seconds, just long enough for me to tell of that glorious experience. The timing was supernatural, I hadn't told that testimony in years! I later learned that his name is Floyd and he wore a beaming smile as we parted.
But the clincher of all menial tasks is one that took place in a communist concentration camp several decades ago. Forgive me for how graphic this has to be, but a guard had snatched away a New Testament from a group of believers. They later found out he was using its pages for toilet paper. One of those believers so hungered for the Word of God that he began to follow the guard into the outhouse, only a little later so as to retrieve the crumpled, stained and discarded pages each day, and painstakingly rinse them out with clean water so that they could be read again and again. That's how precious a copy of the New Testament was there in the darkness of that cruel prison, a copy that would never have been recovered if the Nethinim didn't continue in spirit humbly serving to this day!
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