Gone but not Forgotten

How should we interpret the statement that when one dies he or she is "gathered to his people" (Gen. 25:8)?

The phrase “to be gathered [’asap, “to gather, glean, take away,” etc.] to the forefathers” is not common in the Bible; it is mainly found in the Pentateuch. Your question, I assume, is whether or not it supports the teaching of the survival of the spirit, or soul, after death. I will review that position, examine the use of the phrase, and discuss its meaning.

1. Life After Death? Those who accept the Greek concept of an immortal soul argue that this phrase shows that the Old Testament supports such a concept. It is argued that the “forefathers” formed a community in the afterlife, and that those who die join this community. They argue that the phrase “gathered to his people” does not mean that the person was buried in the tomb of the ancestors, because Abraham was not buried with his ancestors (Gen. 25:8, 9). Neither does it mean to die, because in some passages it seems to be distinguished from dying. For them, the only logical interpretation is that after we die our spirit joins the community of those who are already dead.

2. Examining the Texts: A study of the use of the phrase shows several things. First, in some passages it is part of an emphatic reference to death. For instance, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age . . . and was gathered to his people. . . . His sons . . . buried him” (Gen. 25:8, 9; also Gen. 25:17; 35:29; cf. Gen. 49:33; Deut. 32:50). It emphasizes the finality of death, even for God’s people. The fact that death and burial are mentioned  together with “to be gathered to” suggests that it is not always an exact synonym for death or burial.

Second, in some cases the phrase seems to be a synonym for “to die.” God said about Aaron, He will “be gathered to his people and die there” (Num. 20:26). The same usage is
found in the cases of Moses (Num. 27:13; 31:2) and the generation that conquered the land (Judges 2:10).

Third, the phrase is almost a synonym for “to be buried/tomb.” The Lord said to King Josiah, “I will gather [lit. “I am the one who gathers”] you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace [lit. “you will be gathered to your tomb in peace”]” (2 Chron. 34:28; cf. 2 Kings 22:20). The second part of the verse clarifies the first: to be gathered to the fathers mean to be buried in the tomb of the fathers.

Fourth, sometimes instead of using the full phrase we find only the verb “to be gathered” in the sense of “to die” (Num. 27:13; Hosea 4:3; Isa. 57:1).

3. Significance of the Phrase: Concerning the meaning of this phrase we should notice: First, there is no contextual connection between the phrase and the survival of something
after the person dies. Second, it is the dead person (the corpse) and not one of its components (e.g., the soul, the spirit) that is gathered to the forefathers. Third, our phrase basically means to die, but it emphasizes a particular aspect of death. The phrase “to breathe its last” establishes the arrival of death, and “to be buried” understands it as separation. “To be gathered to our forefathers” means that death is inescapable. Like our ancestors, we will die and join them in the tomb; our pilgrimage ends, and we rest, just as those who preceded us.

But for those who serve the Lord there is more. Fourth, the verb is always in the passive—the individual is gathered; she/he does not join the forefathers by herself/himself. Death happens to us. But the passive could suggest that God is the implied agent (2 Kings 22:20). In that case the phrase would indicate that God’s servants are not forgotten when they die. Even though they are dead, God still considers them part of His people. This is not about the condition of individuals after death, but about how God sees them. The phrase seems to contain within it the hope of the resurrection.