Question: "What does it mean that someone was gathered to his people?"
Answer: The phrase gathered to his people is an ancient way of referring to death. The death of Abraham is described this way: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). The New Living Translation is less idiomatic, simply saying that Abraham “joined his ancestors in death.”
Other persons in the Bible whose death is described as being “gathered to his people” include Ishmael (Genesis 25:17), Isaac (Genesis 35:29), Jacob (Genesis 49:33), Aaron (Numbers 20:24), and Moses (Numbers 27:13). A related idiom is found in Genesis 15:15, where God tells Abram, “You shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (ESV). In Genesis 47:30, Jacob speaks of a future time when he would “rest” (CSB) or “lie down” (NASB) with his fathers. Go to your ancestors, gathered to your people, and rest with your fathers are all poetic, periphrastic references to physical death.
Some speculate that gathered to his people is a reference to the remains of the deceased being taken to a family burial site. In some cases, this could be its primary meaning. However, there are other cases in which the “gathering” cannot refer to a physical location: Abraham, Moses, and Aaron were all buried far from where their ancestors were, yet they are all said to have been “gathered to their people.”
A better view is that gathered to his people refers to joining past generations in death. Biblically, it also refers to the gathering of the spirits of the dead in one place in the afterlife—that place being Sheol. The biblical patriarchs knew that the grave awaited them, just as it had awaited all their ancestors before them, but they also knew that there was an existence beyond the grave. The consistent teaching of Scripture is that there is life after death: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This truth is implied in the Hebrew idiom gathered to his people.
Another teaching that can be inferred from gathered to his people is that, even after death, souls retain their individuality. When he died, Isaac did not cease being Isaac; rather, his spirit or soul was taken to another place where his ancestors had already gone. Isaac was not joining an impersonal collective or some kind of cosmic consciousness—he was joining a crowd of individual people he knew.
Note, in Genesis 15:15, in His words to Abram, “You . . . will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age,” that God alludes to both Abram’s spiritual fate and his physical fate. Abram’s spirit would go to be with his ancestors; meanwhile, his body would be buried.
God’s plan is not to leave the body and soul separated forever. We will all one day be “gathered to our people,” but the Bible promises resurrection: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). For those who, like Daniel, are justified by faith, the resurrection will be a blessed event. They, like Daniel, have this promise: “You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance” (Daniel 12:13).