In the following verse we read about Qaroon’s keys.
[28:76] Qãroon (the slave driver) was one of Moses’ people who betrayed them and oppressed them. We gave him so many treasures that the keys thereof were almost too heavy for the strongest band. His people said to him, “Do not be so arrogant; GOD does not love those who are arrogant.
إِنَّ قَارُونَ كَانَ مِنْ قَوْمِ مُوسَىٰ فَبَغَىٰ عَلَيْهِمْ وَآتَيْنَاهُ مِنَ الْكُنُوزِ مَا إِنَّ مَفَاتِحَهُ لَتَنُوءُ بِالْعُصْبَةِ أُولِي الْقُوَّةِ إِذْ قَالَ لَهُ قَوْمُهُ لَا تَفْرَحْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْفَرِحِينَ
The verse informs us that the keys were so heavy that it was almost too heavy for even the strongest band. But is this a band of men or a physical band? Let’s take a look at the Arabic to figure it out:
From the Arabic we see that the word for “band” is “بِالْعُصْبَةِ” which comes from the word “عُصْبَةِ” which means: a band; troop; gang; party; group. We see the same word used in the following verses: 12:8, 12:14, and 24:11.
[24:11] A gang (عُصْبَةٌ) among you produced a big lie. Do not think that it was bad for you; instead, it was good for you. Meanwhile, each one of them has earned his share of the guilt. As for the one who initiated the whole incident, he has incurred a terrible retribution.
So how are we to understand why it would be a struggle for a group of men possessing strength to lift the keys to Qaroon’s treasures? Today when we think of keys we think of something small that can fit into our pockets, but this was not the kind of keys that existed in Ancient Egypt at the time of Qaroon.
Back then there were predominately two styles of keys that were in circulation. The first form of keys were large beams that consisted of a wooden crossbar on two wooden brackets mounted on the door and the door frame. Clearly this is not something someone could easily put in their pocket.
The second form of lock that originated in Ancient Egypt was the Egyptian pin tumbler locks made of wood with wooden keys. In these contraptions a wooden beam was locked in place with a lock that could be as big as almost a meter in length. They keys themselves were also well sized. The key’s job was to lift the tumblers that held the beam or bolt in place. The bolt was opened or closed when its free end was pushed by the key into or out of a wooden guide in the door frame.
“It consisted of the wooden post that was affixed to the door, and a horizontal bolt that slid into the post. This bolt had set of openings which were filled with pins. Specially designed large and heavy wooden key was shaped like modern toothbrush with pegs that corresponded to the holes and pins in the lock. This key could be inserted into opening and lifted, which would move the pins and allow security bolt to be moved.”
So from looking at the Arabic and researching the history of locks that were available in Egypt at the time of Qaroon, we come to realize what it means when the verse tells us:
“…We gave him so many treasures that the keys thereof were almost too heavy for the strongest band.”