The care and keeping of anything; the detaining of a person by virtue of lawful process or authority; actual imprisonment.
The Biblical law most clearly explaining the responsibilities of a custodian is outlined at Exodus 22:10-13, involving animals entrusted to another. This law, undoubtedly based on an earlier patriarchal law (Ge 31:39), states: “In case a man should give his fellow . . . any domestic animal to keep, and it does die or get maimed or gets led off while nobody is looking, . . . the other is not to make compensation. But if they should for a fact be stolen from him, he is to make compensation to their owner. If it should for a fact be torn by a wild beast, he is to bring it as evidence. For something torn by a wild beast he is not to make compensation.”—Compare Ge 30:31.
When a shepherd or herdsman said he would keep or guard a flock or herd, he was indicating legal acceptance of the custody of these animals. He was guaranteeing the owner that they would be fed and not stolen, or else compensation would be paid. However, his responsibility was not absolute, for the above law absolved the guardian of liability in the case of an occurrence beyond normal human control, such as attack by wild beasts. To be relieved of the responsibility of custody, though, he had to submit evidence to the owner, as, for example, the torn carcass. The owner, on examination of such evidence, was bound to return a verdict of innocence on the part of the custodian.
The same principle applied in general to any entrusted property, even in family relationships, for example, the oldest brother was considered the legal guardian of his younger brothers and sisters. Hence, we can understand the concern that Reuben as an eldest son had for Joseph’s life, as recorded at Genesis 37:18-30, when the other brothers spoke of killing him. “He said: ‘Let us not strike his soul fatally.’ . . . ‘Do not spill blood. . . . do not lay a violent hand upon him.’ His purpose was to deliver him out of their hand in order to return him to his father.” And when Reuben discovered Joseph’s absence, his anxiety was so extreme that “he ripped his garments apart” and exclaimed: “The child is gone! And I—where am I really to go?” He knew that he could be held accountable for the loss of Joseph. To escape responsibility, the brothers shrewdly fabricated evidence to the effect that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. This they did by soaking Joseph’s striped garment in goat’s blood. They then submitted this evidence to Jacob, their father and patriarchal judge, who absolved Reuben of any responsibility because, on the basis of Joseph’s blood-soaked garment that his brothers presented as evidence, Jacob concluded that Joseph had been killed.—Ge 37:31-33.
At Galatians 3:19-25, a spiritual application of the terms “guarded” and “custody” is made. Paul says that the Law made transgressions manifest and that “the Scripture delivered up all things together to the custody of sin.” But he continues: “However, before the faith arrived, we were being guarded under law, being delivered up together into custody, looking to the faith that was destined to be revealed.” He thereby emphasized how natural Israel was in spiritual custody, being guarded or kept by the Law, until the faith toward Christ arrived.
Custody as used by the Bible in some instances means the detention of a person. An example is the half Israelite who abused Jehovah’s name while in the camp of Israel. After he transgressed the Law, the account states: “Then they committed him into custody till there should be a distinct declaration to them according to the saying of Jehovah.” (Le 24:10-16, 23) As a rule Israel did not commit criminals into any extended custody, because they were required to execute justice swiftly. (Jos 7:20, 22-25) However, in this case, as well as the case of the Sabbath breaker at Numbers 15:32-36, a clarification of the law was being awaited; but as soon as Jehovah’s saying on the matter was clear, the sentence was immediately executed. Similarly, Peter and the other apostles were committed into custody, though unjustly, pending trial before the Sanhedrin on the following day. (Ac 4:3; 5:17, 18) The Scriptures also take note of the fact that Jeremiah was unjustly put in custody, not merely being held for trial but actually imprisoned.—Jer 37:21.