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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Prison; Prisoner

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priz ´' n , priz ´' n - ẽr , priz´nẽr (there are various Hebrew words which are rendered "prison" in the King James Version, among them:

1. Hebrew Words:

(1) סהר , ṣōhar , "round house," "fortress" (8 times in Genesis), (2) כּלא , kele' "restraint," "confinement" (12 times: in historic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, with "house"), (3) מטּרה , maṭṭārāh , "guard," "sentry" (13 times in Jeremiah and Nehemiah), (4) מהפכת , mahaphekheth , "distorting," i.e. stocks or pillory (4 times), (5) אסוּר , 'ēṣūr , "bond," "fetters" ( Ecclesiastes 4:14 ; Jeremiah 37:15 ); "ward" in the King James Version is usually the rendering for משׁמר , mishmār ):

2. In Early Times:

The earliest occurrence of the word "prison" in the King James Version is found in the narrative of Joseph's life in Egypt (the Jahwist). The term used, namely, ṣōhār , means perhaps "round house" or "tower." It seems probable that among the Hebrews there were no special buildings erected as "jails" in the premonarchical period, and perhaps not before the post-exilic period, when the adoption of the civic institutions and customs of surrounding nations prevailed. In Egypt and Assyria, on the contrary, there were probably public buildings corresponding to our modern jails. Among the Hebrews, rooms in connection with the royal palace or the residence of prominent court officials would be used for the purpose.

3. Joseph in Egypt:

According to one narrative (Jahwist) in Genesis the prison in which Joseph was confined had a "keeper," while according to another narrative (the Elohist) the offending members of the royal household, namely, the royal butler and the royal baker, were placed "in ward" with the "captain of the guard" in charge, i.e. in some part of the royal palace. This is still more probable if, instead of "captain of the guard," we should translate "chief of the cooks" i.e. superintendent of the royal kitchen.

4. Causes of Imprisonment:

It was often necessary to restrict the liberty of individuals who for various causes were a menace to those in authority, without inflicting any corporal punishment, e.g. Joseph's brethren were kept "in ward" three days (Genesis 42:19 ); Shimei was forbidden to pass beyond the boundary of Jerusalem (1 Kings 2:36 ); the person who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath was put "in ward" pending his trial (Numbers 15:34 ). In the monarchical period, prophets who criticized the throne were put in prison, e.g. Micaiah by Ahab (1 Kings 22:27 ), Hanani by Asa (2 Chronicles 16:10 ). Hoshea, after his abortive effort to institute an alliance with So or Seve, king of Egypt, was shut up in prison by Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:4 ); compare also 2 Kings 25:27 (Jehoiachin in Babylon); Jeremiah 52:11 (Zedekiah in Babylon).

5. Under the Monarchy:

The Book of Jeremiah throws considerable light on the prison system of Jerusalem in the later monarchical period. The prophet was put " in the stocks that were in the upper gate of Benjamin, which was in the house of Yahweh" ( Jeremiah 20:2 ). Mere imprisonment was not adequate punishment for the prophet's announcement of Judah's doom; it was necessary to have recourse to the pillory. During the siege of Jerusalem Jeremiah was confined in the "court of the guard, which was in the king of Judah's house" (Jeremiah 32:2 , etc.). The "court of the guard" was evidently the quarters of the sentry who guarded the royal palace. According to the narrative of Jeremiah 37, the prophet was arrested on a charge of treachery and put in prison "in the house of Jonathan the scribe" (Jeremiah 37:15 ). This verse does not necessarily mean that a private house was used as a prison. The words are capable of another interpretation, namely, that a building known as the "house of Jonathan the scribe" had been taken over by the authorities and converted into a jail. We read in the following verse that the house had a "dungeon" (literally, "house of the pit") and "cabins" or "cells."

6. The Treatment of Prisoners:

The data are not sufficient to enable us to give any detailed description of the treatment of prisoners. This treatment varied according to the character of the offense which led to incarceration. Samson during the period of his imprisonment was compelled to do hard labor (Judges 16:21 ). Grinding was the occupation of women, and marked the depth of Samson's humiliation. Dangerous persons were subjected to various kinds of physical mutilation, e.g. Samson was deprived of his sight. This was a common practice in Assyria (2 Kings 25:7 ). The thumbs and great toes of Adonibezek were cut off to render him incapable of further resistance (Judges 1:6 ).

Various forms of torture were in vogue. Hanani the seer was put into the pillory by Asa (for "in a prison house" we should render "in the stocks"; see the Revised Version margin). In Jeremiah 29:26 for "prison," we should render "stocks" (so the Revised Version (British and American)) or "pillory," and for "stocks," "collar" (as in the Revised Version margin). the King James Version renders a different Hebrew word by "stocks" in Job ( Job 13:27 ; Job 33:11 ). There was a special prison diet (1 Kings 22:27 ), as well as a prison garb (2 Kings 25:29 ).

7. Other Hebrew Words:

There are other Hebrew words rendered "prison" (sometimes incorrectly) in the King James Version. In Psalm 142:7 , the word which is translated "prison" means a "place of execution," and is derived from a root which denotes, for instance, the isolation of the leper (Leviticus 13:5 ; compare Isaiah 24:22 ; Isaiah 42:7 ). In Isaiah 53:8 "oppression" not "prison" is the correct translation while in Isaiah 61:1 the Hebrew denotes "opening of the eyes," rather than "opening of the prison." Prisoners are promised "light after darkness, gleam after gloom."

8. In the New Testament:

In the New Testament "prison" generally occurs for the Greek word φυλακή , phulakḗ , which corresponds to the Hebrew word משׁמר , mishmār , referred to above ( Matthew 5:25 ; Mark 6:17 ; Luke 3:20 ; Acts 5:19 ; 1 Peter 3:19 ). In Revelation 18:2 , the King James Version renders this word by two different words, namely, "hold" and "cage"; the Revised Version (British and American) employs "hold" in each case (the Revised Version margin "prison"). In one passage "ward" is the rendering in the King James Version (Acts 12:10 ). In connection with the imprisonment of John the term used is δεσμωτήιον , desmōtḗrion , "place of bonds" or "fetters" (Matthew 11:2 ); the same word is used in the case of Peter and John (Acts 5:21 , Acts 5:23 ), and of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:26 ). But the more common term is also found in these narratives. In Acts 12:17 "prison" renders a Greek word which means "dwelling." In Acts 5:18 the King James Version, "prison" is the rendering for another Greek word, namely, τήρησις , tḗrēsis , "watching" or "ward" (the Revised Version (British and American) "ward"). In Acts 4:3 , the King James Version employs "hold" as the rendering for the same word. This would correspond to the modern "police station" or "lockup." See also PUNISHMENTS .

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Prison; Prisoner'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

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