Was King David's Tomb Booby-Trapped?
Today “King David’s Tomb” is a venerated site in Jerusalem visited by many religious Jews and tourists to this day. But most scholars do not believe that site to be the real location of King David’s actual tomb. The site only became famous during the Middle Ages. An actual underground tomb has yet to be discovered, although many have looked for it lured by the rumors of treasure. What do we actually know about where King David might have been buried? Was treasure buried with him? Did anyone set traps to ensnare potential robbers? Visions from the recent movies “The Mummy” or “The Goonies” bring to mind booby traps set in Egyptian tombs or Pirate caves to protect the hoard. Let’s looks back at the writings from ancient Jerusalem to see what they can tell us. There are more details there than most people are aware of. The writer of the Book of Kings gives us the first clue:
“So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David." 1 Kings 2:10
Today many dug out sepulchers can be found around Jerusalem from thousands of years ago. The area is underlain by limestone, which is soft enough for rooms to be easily carved into. In fact, just east of the Old City, many tombs have been uncovered or excavated that were dug into the hillside of the Kidron Valley (see examples below.)
And we have written evidence from the first century CE that the location of David’s Tomb was common knowledge. The New Testament writer Luke records a speech of the Apostle Peter speaking t a crown around 33 CE:
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.” Acts 2:29
But King David lived at about 1000 BCE so this is one thousand years later. What else can we find that described David’s Tomb? Amazingly, Josephus gave us very important clues that very few people are aware of. First, he tells us that the tomb was raided 165 years before Peter by the Judean Hasmonean King and High Priest John Hyrcanus:
“But Hyrcanus opened the sepulchre of David, who excelled all other kings in riches, and took out of it three thousand talents (of silver).” Antiquities 13:240
Josephus was reporting that Hyrcanus needed this money to pay off the Seleucid/Greek leader Antiochus VII, who had laid siege to Jerusalem. So apparently a great deal of treasure was buried with King David. And given that Solomon was later buried in the same place, perhaps much additional treasure was added. But the plot thickens, for Josephus tells us that King Herod the Great was the next one to try to pilfer treasure from the tomb in about 10 BCE:
“As for Herod, he had spent vast sums about the cities, both without and within his own kingdom: and as he had before heard that Hyrcanus, who had been king before him, had opened David’s sepulchre, and taken out of it three thousand talents of silver, and that there was a much greater number left behind, and indeed enough to suffice all his wants, he had a great while an intention to make the attempt. And at this time he opened that sepulchre by night, and went into it, and endeavored that it should not be at all known in the city, but took only his most faithful friends with him. As for any money, he found none, as Hyrcanus had done, but instead furniture of gold, and those precious goods that were laid up there; all which he took away. However, he had a great desire to make a more diligent search, and to go farther in, even as far as the very bodies of David and Solomon; where two of his guards were slain, by flame that burst out upon those that were in, as the report was. So he was terribly frightened, and went out, and built a propitiatory monument of that fright he had been in, and this of white stone, at the mouth of the sepulchre, and that at a great expense also.“ Antiquities 16:179-182
We find out here that Herod tried to plunder the treasure in secret by night but only partly succeeded. When two of his men were sent deeper in to find more treasure they were consumed by a fiery explosion. Sounds like a booby trap to me! Herod was so frightened by this he feared he would be punished by God for desecrating the tomb and built a substantial monument at the entrance for penance. Josephus is relating this story from 50 years before he was born, and it sounds like it scared anyone else from reattempting what Herod had tried. Many scholars believe the story was invented for this reason--to keep away thieves. As a hydrogeologist, I have to think there might be a natural explanation for what happened. Most people are aware that explosions can occur in coal mines from leaking methane. But methane can also escape naturally from groundwater and accumulate in poorly aerated caves (or sealed up tomb rooms). Thus, Herod’s men entering with torches could have ignited the methane, causing the explosion that killed them. It’s an interesting hypothesis to consider. Was the story real? If so, was the explosion the result of a natural phenomenon? Or human tampering to protect the site?