Genesis 49:29, Gathered To My People, Part II of II

And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite.

//As described a couple days ago, Abraham held no dream of a  resurrection. His expectations beyond death were to be “gathered to his  people.” But no explanation of this phrase is given. If Abraham gives no  hint about his afterlife expectations, then what about his grandson,  Jacob?

Today’s  verse provides the answer. When Jacob dies, he doesn’t look forward to  living with God. Jacob is terrified of heaven. One day, in a dream, he  sees angels traversing a stairway up and down to heaven, and he is  afraid, having discovered the doorway to the realm of God. No, Jacob  just wants to be buried with his grandfather. Until very late in the  development of the Old Testament, that was the best one could hope for  after death; for your bones to be reunited with the bones of your  fathers. Jewish identity, then and now, is rooted in ancestry, with the  desire to be remembered among your offspring.

Even  in the second century, B.C., after Jews began to believe in an  afterlife, resurrection didn’t mean heaven. A friend asked me a few days  ago when Christians began believing in heaven. Not just an afterlife,  but a belief in living “up there” with God. I just don’t know! Part of  the problem is that the Greek word for heaven is also the Greek word for  sky. Our picture of heaven is so far removed from how it was pictured  in Bible days that this is a difficult question to answer. When did  heaven become more than just layers of sky? Revelation, which most  consider the ultimate description of life after death, was not  originally about heaven at all. It was about living again on earth.  Paul, who helped integrate the Greek concept of the soul into  Christianity, dreamed of floating about in the sky like Jesus, but not  as a bodiless spirit. I do wish we had more of Paul’s letters than the  few that were collected and preserved; he’s an absolutely fascinating  theologian, and could probably shed a lot more light on the topic.


  1. Have you read what N.T. Wright has to say about this? He’s written quite a lot on how 1st century Jews and 1st and 2nd century Christians viewed the afterlife. And, as you say, it has much more to do with resurrection than heaven.

  2. Yes, I’m a big N.T. Wright fan. I agree with most all of his arguments, and few of his conclusions, but still find his writing thought-provoking and fun to read. He just sent me his latest: Revelation for Everyone.

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