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In the Old Testament, when someone dies, he is sometimes said to be "gathered to his people" or a close variant:

Genesis 15:15 As for you [Abraham], you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age.

Genesis 25:8 Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.

Genesis 35:29 Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Genesis 49:29 I [Jacob] am about to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite.

Numbers 20:24 Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah.

Judges 2:10 All that generation [Joshua's] also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.

My hunch is that it refers to them being reunited to people of God who died before them, but I'd like to hear actual evidence that takes into consideration the ancient near eastern context. What does it mean?

6 Answers 6

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I found this page of citations with different traditional commentators. Sforno on Genesis 25:8 supports your hypothesis:

ויאסף אל עמיו - אל צרור החיים לחיי העולם עם צדיקי הדורות

He was gathered to his people - To be bound in life: the eternal life with the righteous of [prior] generations

Radak (David Kimchi) indicates that it refers to his other family members who have died.

I don't recall the source, but I think I've seen another interpretation that it is referring to the custom of moving the bones of the decomposed body into a family ossuary.

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    Skinny J that is correct about the collection of the bones. All the bones would be collected and placed together.
    – user6053
    Mar 15, 2015 at 1:18
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    It is correct that people were buried in family graves (1st burial) and after some years, the bones were moved to a family ossuary (2nd burial). Still, the expression does not refer only to the burial in a family grave, since it's also used for Moses and Aaron who were probably not placed in a family grave. It also emphasises familial ties in the afterlife. Also, the qal-niphal minimal pair in 2 Kgs. 22:20 || 2 Chr. 34:28 indicates that God is the actor of the gathering act, not the remaining family members.
    – user2672
    Oct 1, 2018 at 15:54
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+50

What is the meaning of the “gathered to his people” idiom?

Genesis 15:15 As for you [Abraham], you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age.

Genesis 25:8 Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.

From the above verses arises the question of Abraham's "forefathers" or to whom "was Abraham gathered to his people .His ancestors were dead for thousands of years, and so his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him with Sarah his wife.

Genesis 25:8-10 (NASB)

8 "Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people. 9 Then his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, 10 the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth; there Abraham was buried with Sarah his wife."

Abraham was gathered to his people, who were his people? His father was Terah and his brothers,Nahor and Haran from the Chaldean city of Ur. Abraham is an ancestor of Shem the son of Noah, Shem begat, Arpachshad - Shelah- Eber- Peleg - Reu- Serug and Nahor begat Terah the father of Abraham. (Genesis 11: 10-26) And so Abraham was gathered to all of his ancestors and buried at a good old age, therefore all of Abraham's ancestors are , in sheol/grave and are still awaiting the promise of resurrection of the dead that God promised his faithful servants.

King David also died and lied down with his forefathers: "Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David."( 1Kings 2:10 NASB) In a number of his Psalms King David spoke of deliverance from sheol/grave, read below.

Psalm 16:10 (NASB)

10 "For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay."

Psalm 18:5 (NASB)

5 "The cords of Sheol surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me."

Psalm 18:5 (NIV)

5 "The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me."

Psalm 86:13 (NET Bible)

13 For you will extend your great loyal love to me, and will deliver my life from the depths of Sheol.

Acts 13:36 (NASB)

36 "For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay."

On the day of the Pentecost the apostle Peter informed his listeners that David was still in sheol or grave, he said: “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day." (Acts 2:29) Therefore David did not ascend to the heavens and according to Peter’s words David’s resurrection is to be sometime in the future.

Note , Jesus also said: "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man."John 3:13 (NASB)

The idiom “gathered to his people” means that, that they were all gathered in Sheol or Haʹdes, the common grave of mankind and from there, Revelation 20:13 tells us, the dead will resurrected.

Revelation 20:13 (NASB)

13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.

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  • Excellent answer with good evidence. Thank you. +1.
    – Dottard
    Jan 11, 2021 at 21:57
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The phrase ‘gathered to his people” means that upon his bodily death, Abraham’s soul was gathered and taken to where his kinsmen or forefathers were in the unseen realm of departed souls. In Gen. 15:15, the word “fathers” is the meaning at Brown-Drivers-Briggs definition 4 of ancestors / forefathers. In other words, the Patriarchs. (1)(2)

Abraham became the father of many nations (Gen. 17:45) and the patriarch of the tribes of Israel. Being gathered unto his people at his bodily death in Gen. 25:8 could not be speaking of the people of his unborn descendants, but the people of his ancestors – the patriarchs of the OT. (3)

The distinction of “his people” is more clearly shown in the picture we are given in Luke 16 of the unseen realm of the dead (hades) which was divided into two sections: Abraham’s bosom, and the place of torment, or Tartarus.

”22`And it came to pass, that the poor man died, and that he was carried away by the messengers to the bosom of Abraham -- and the rich man also died, and was buried; 23 and in the hades having lifted up his eyes, being in torments, he doth see Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom,” (Luke 16:22-23, YLT)

The messengers were the celestial, heavenly angels. There were two sections of the hades; one for the righteous souls, and the other for the unrighteous souls, both separated by a gulf no one could pass. Notice that the judgment of Lazarus and of the rich man occurred at their bodily deaths, else there would not have been a different area that each were placed in.

”and as it is laid up to men once to die, and after this – judgment,” (Heb. 9:27, YLT)

God’s judgment process for each person has always been at the moment of physical death, and removal from this earthly realm. Being gathered unto his people, Lazarus had been judged as worthy, or righteous and taken to Abraham’s bosom. Abraham’s bosom was a phrase used by the rabbis for that place of peace where Abraham was waiting with all of the other righteous souls for the resurrection. (4)(5)

This part of ‘hades” for the righteous souls was the same area which Jesus called “Paradise” in Luke 23.

”and Jesus said to him, `Verily I say to thee, To-day with me thou shalt be in the paradise.'” (Luke 23:43, YLT)

Paradise was the same as Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16:22, the place of the righteous souls who had died before.(6) That Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be in the righteous part of Hades meant that Jesus had forgiven the thief of his sins, which further meant that the thief must have been baptized (immersed) under John’s baptism else Jesus would not have been able to forgive him. (7)

Hades was a prison with gates (Matt. 16:18). Peter said that Jesus had preached (past tense) to those who were being held in prison (1 Pet. 3:18-20).(8) Jesus told the thief they would be in Paradise (Luke 23:43). Therefore, Jesus and the thief went to that part of Hades (the unseen realm of departed souls ) which was also called Abraham’s bosom where the righteous souls were waiting. Jesus held the keys to that prison (Rev. 1:18).

While He was in Paradise for those three days, before He was quickened from the dead and resurrected, I am convinced that Jesus told those righteous souls waiting in Paradise the same things He told His disciples during His earthly ministry, that the kingdom of heaven was at hand; that they were not going to have to wait much longer. (Matt. 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 21:31). (9)(10)

Therefore, when Abraham, and Jacob, and David were gathered unto their people, they had each been placed into that section of Hades called Paradise where the other righteous souls were waiting.

Further, those souls have already been resurrected from the dead as Jesus prophesied to His disciples in Matt 25: 31-46 which was to happen when He came in judgment and destroyed that temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. That is when He established His everlasting kingdom, and threw Hades into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

Ever since that “general resurrection” from Hades every person is judged at their bodily death and those who die in the Lord are gathered and taken home to heaven to be with “their people” (Rev. 14:13).

”...and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it;” (Matt. 16:18, YLT)

We can be assured now that the prison of Hades is no longer holding any of God’s people. (11)(12)(13)

Notes:

  1. Gather – Strong’s Heb. 622, “asaph” – to gather, remove; to collect into the company of others; to be gathered to one’s father, or one’s people; Source: Biblehub

  2. Father – Strong’s Heb. 1, “ab” – defined as father of an individual; God, as father of His people; head of the household, family, or clan; of an ancestor such as a grandfather, or forefathers as used in Gen. 15:15. Source: Biblehub

  3. People – Strong’s Heb. 5971, “am” meaning “folk”; defined under BDB 1 as people or nation; 2 in smaller units such people of a city or locality; 3 as common people; 4 generally as persons; 5 as compatriots or fellow countrymen, or one’s people; but of special interest at BDB 4 II of kinsmen; joining kinsmen as in Gen. 49:33. Source: Biblehub

  4. Abraham’s bosom – a rabbinial phrase meaning to be with Abraham in Paradise, to enjoy Abraham’s peace in Paradise. Bosom – Strong’s Gr. 2859, “kolpos”. Source: Biblehub

  5. Hades – Strong’s Gr. 86, “hades” – the unseen realm of departed souls Source: Biblehub

  6. Paradise – Strong’s Gr. 3857 – “paradeisios” – an enclosed garden, grove, or park; God’s garden (Rev. 2:7), garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8) Source: Biblehub

  7. The Thief on The Cross - ShreddingTheVeil

  8. Jesus wasn’t preaching to the souls who had already been judged and placed in torment in Tartarus. He did that in the Spirit while they had been living, during their lifetime before the flood. See the discussion here: ThePrisonInHell

  9. Testing the Spirits – Part II: The End here: ShreddingTheVeil

  10. Testing the Spirits – Part III: Daniel’s Lot here: here

  11. The Signs of Revelation – Part VI: Judgment Day here: here

  12. The Resurrection in Three Parts here: here

  13. The Gathering of The Elect here: here

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In the version I mostly read in portuguese, BPT09, states

Morreu feliz numa idade já bastante avançada e foi juntar-se aos seus antepassados.

Translating that to English will be

He died happily at an advanced age and joined his ancestors.

So, "gathered to his people" means to "join his ancestors" which shows a belief that when one dies, one will be reunited with the ancestors.

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I do not think from what I've read, that this has any meaning that people are alive while dead, as ghosts. I think that idea is a false doctrine introduced after the New Testament, and is a misinterpretation of simply being dead and buried. Hell means burial into the ground. That's all it means. When all of scripture is considered, it means the person is dead and the person is buried with the person's family. The bones were gathered. We see this with King David, as explained in Acts 2:29.

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    Welcome to Hermeneutics.SE. I agree in broad lines with this answer. Still, the expression does not refer only to the burial in a family grave, since it's also used for Moses and Aaron who were probably not placed in a family grave. Could you elaborate?
    – user2672
    Oct 1, 2018 at 15:52
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    If hell is just being buried in the ground, then how far down does one have to be buried? The reason I ask is Jesus kept referring to the place where "the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched."
    – dviljoen
    Nov 27, 2018 at 15:48
  • What evidence do you have for this? Please edit your post to elaborate.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 3, 2019 at 13:37
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I think it simply refers to being buried with previously deceased relatives in a familial burial place. Many commentators try to equate it with the pagan immortal soul doctrine. Today, we would liken it to a family masoleum or family cemetery.

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    What evidence do you have for this? Please edit your post to elaborate.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 3, 2019 at 13:37

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