B'Midbar/Numbers 20:24 Aharon will be gathered to his people, for he will not enter the land
At first sight, this week's text starts with a well-known and common euphemism for dying - he will be gathered to his people, .HaShem was telling Moshe that Aharon was about to die. The verb here is a Nifil 3ms prefix form from the root , to collect together or to assemble, followed by the preposition to designate the person or place of gathering. Significantly, in two ways, the text carries more meaning than simply that Aharon was about to die, although that is true. Firstly, this idiom is only found in the Torah itself, only with the deaths of Avraham (B'resheet 25:8), Ishmael (B'resheet 25:17), Yitz'chak (B'resheet 35:29), Ya'akov (B'resheet 49:29,33), Moshe (B'Midbar 27:33, 31:2; D'varim 32:50) and Aharon (here and D'varim 32:50); it is used only for Israel's forefathers - not for women or non-Israelites - just for the key figures among the patriarchs. Secondly, as Jacob Milgrom points out, "It is the act that takes place after dying but before burial. Thus it can neither mean to die nor to be buried in the family tomb. Rather it means 'be re-united with one's ancestors' and refers to the after-life in She'ol". Consequently, the opposite expression - he shall be cut off from his people (for example Shemot 30:33) - means that a person has been excluded from the afterlife, a punishment that can only be carried out by G-d.
Some suggest that the concept of an after-life, the - the world to come - and the idea of a resurrection after death were unknown in "early" Judaism, as if Avraham and Moshe saw their existence in terms of this physical life alone, terminating at death. To be fair, the Torah contains little direct information about eschatology, lacking the grand view that Isaiah was granted: "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (Isaiah 65:17, NASB), Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones: "Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the Land of Israel" (Ezekiel 37:12, NASB), or Daniel's startling insight: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2, NASB). Nevertheless, this phrase - being gathered to one's people - is a sign that the continuity of life after death was an accepted everyday part of faith from earliest times. Within the writings of every society, some things were so commonplace that they are simply taken for granted and never directly mentioned precisely because everyone knows and accepts them as part of life; our text, and its opposite, provide a sideways glimpse at this certainty of the ancients.
Commenting of the Torah's first use of this phrase (B'resheet 25:8),Hirsch says, "Moreover the word designates receiving a strayling into sheltering protection, and an expelled one back into his original home. According to this, we regard the next world as the real home to which mankind belongs and this world, the testing years of wandering abroad, out of which at the end of wandering, the soul returns home and is received in the waiting circle of those to whom it belongs." Yeshua stands firmly in this tradition when He rebukes the Sadducees for their lack of belief in the world to come: "As for the dead being revived, haven't you read in the book of Moshe, in the passage about the bush, how G-d said to him, 'I am the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitz'chak and the G-d of Ya'akov'? He is G-d not of the dead, but of the living!" (Mark 12:26-27, CJB). The parable of the talents, while it does not specifically mention resurrection or the world to come, is immediately followed by the explicitly second-coming vision of the sheep and the goats, and clearly points to the resurrection as it has the master telling the good servants, "Excellent! You are a good and trustworthy servant. You have been faithful with a small amount, so I will put you in charge of a large amount - come and join in your master's happiness! (Matthew 25:21, CJB).
Those of a cynical or non-believing persuasion will say that ideas of an existence after death, an eternal soul, is just human vanity; because man is sentient and more intelligent that animals - who also die - he thinks that he should live for ever; that it offends man's sense of 'being' that he too should simply cease at death. They suggest that man, from the earliest times, has surrounded himself with the imagined worlds of eternity in order to comfort him and provide a psychological cushion against the mortality of his own ego. Others of a less uncharitable outlook, while continuing to deny any resurrection of life after death, will talk about man living on in the memory of successive generations; that man struggles to build a reputation and a lifestyle so that his children and grandchildren may remember him when he is gone, quote his sayings, read his books, and so somehow generate the illusion of life after death in the minds of family, friends and acquaintances. In all but the most exceptional - or infamous - cases, of course, this lasts only for two or three generations at most and is limited to specific families.
The Bible completely rejects these humanistic ideas; its pages are full of the positive expectation that there is a G-d, that man has an eternal soul, that G-d will hold each person accountable for their actions in this life, that are consequences to the choices and decisions we make and that G-d desires to be involved with our lives and His creation. Rav Sha'ul writes, "If it is only for this life that we have put our hope in Messiah, we are more pitiable than anyone" (1 Corinthians 15:19, CJB). Every person knows deep down inside them that G-d will judge them for their life here on this earth; the humanistic arguments are simply an excuse to avoid dealing with G-d and pretend that He doesn't exist, a way of quelling their fears. "But the fact is that Messiah has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have died" (v. 20, CJB). Our sense of eternity is real, an in-built witness of the truth, so that our text about the death of Aharon is simply confirmation of what we already knew: death is but one of the steps in our eternal path. How important, then, that we should be gathered to our people - the people of G-d - and not cut off. Yeshua said, "Yes, this is the will of My Father: that all who see the Son and trust in Him should have eternal life, and that I should raise them up on the Last Day" (John 6:40, CJB). This is no false promise; this is our life!
Further Study: Romans 4:16-17; Hebrews 11:13-16
Application: Many people find the subject of what happens after death very disturbing and uncomfortable to talk about, but these concerns can be easily set at rest by knowing Yeshua. Could you help someone reach peace in this way this week?
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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