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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?

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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 '15 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 '18 at 15:54
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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 '18 at 15:52
  • 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 '18 at 15:48
  • What evidence do you have for this? Please edit your post to elaborate. – curiousdannii Feb 3 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 at 13:37
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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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