In two days our nation will mark the the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy, shot in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. It’s been all over the news this week. Maybe it has caught my attention because I used to live just a couple miles from Dealey Plaza. Or maybe it’s a fascination with conspiracy theories. I’m amazed at how many Americans believe a conspiracy was behind the assassination.
Conspiracy theories are not new. They even can be found in the Bible. One of them is in Isaiah 36-37. It took place in 701 B.C., which was a bad year for Hezekiah, King of Judah. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been destroyed eight years earlier by Shalmaneser, King of Assyria. Now Sennacherib, the new head of state in Assyria, had returned to the area and leveled the cities around Jerusalem. Hezekiah was intimidated. He sent a message to pacify the king of Assyria, who was camped at Lachish, about 30 miles away, ready to pounce again.
“I have done wrong,” Hezekiah said to Sennacherib. “Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me,” (2 Kings 18:14). It was a cowardly gesture of near capitulation. The Bible tells us the King of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah about 11 tons of silver and one ton of gold. It came from the temple of the Lord and from the treasuries of the royal palace. In fact, Hezekiah stripped all the gold from the doors and doorposts of the temple and gave it to the king of Assyria (2 Kings 18:16).
That made Sennacherib happy for a little while. Then like a typical bully, the King of Assyria decided he wanted to squeeze even more out of Hezekiah. Sennacherib sent a high ranking delegation, along with a large army, from Lachish to Jerusalem to intimidate the Jews again. The Assyrian spokesman encountered King Hezekiah’s officials in a public site near the wall of the city and began to mock Hezekiah’s leadership team in the Hebrew language so the citizens who were nearby could listen to what they said.
The Assyrian commander urged the people of Judah not to listen to King Hezekiah and to make a bargain with Sennacherib instead. He promised them a new home in a new land with good food and drink. He threatened them with eating their own filth and drinking their own urine if they refused. He boasted about Assyria’s conquest of all the other nations around them, including their kinsmen in the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria, which had fallen to Assyria eight years earlier.
King Hezekiah had been assuring the people of Jerusalem that the city would not fall to Assyria and urging them to trust the Lord to carry them through this crisis. So it came as a shock and confusion to the people when they heard Sennacherib’s commander shout out this game-changing statement in their own Hebrew language:
“What’s more, do you think we have invaded your land without the LORD’s direction? The LORD himself told us, ‘Attack this land and destroy it!’ ” Isaiah 36:10
That’s the heart of the conspiracy – the Assyrians’ claim that God had sent them to destroy their city. Can you imagine the shock and confusion these words caused for Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem?
“God told the Assyrians to attack us??? Is this true? We already know God sent the Assyrians to destroy Samaria and the northern kingdom Israel. And we know they have destroyed the other nations, just as King Sennacherib claims. Maybe he really has heard a word from the Lord.”
No, Sennacherib hadn’t received a word from the Lord. It was merely a conspiracy theory he was playing against the Jews. Sennacherib’s claim was false. But he had presented a very convincing case to the people and created much confusion and distress. In fact, King Hezekiah and his officials all tore their clothes and put on sackcloth in their distress. They had no answers. For Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem, this was a horrible, no good very bad day. At the heart of it was a message from someone claiming to have heard from God when they hadn’t really heard from God. That’s a conspiracy theory. Nobody had heard God speak to Sennacherib, of course. It was a hidden, secret, mysterious communication with the Almighty. Only it wasn’t real.
Hidden information, secrets, and cover-ups are all over JFK, too. In conspiracy theories, plain evidence is denied as wrong and error is presented as hidden truth. Clear meanings of words are twisted into mystery. Secrets and special knowledge are standard in conspiracy theories. Historically, this concept is called “Gnosticism.” The key to the power of conspiracy theories is inside information, facts not available to just anyone. In Gnosticism, meanings of events are hidden and can be unlocked only by those who have coded inside information. To understand conspiracy theories (Gnosticism), think: “hidden,” “mystery,” “secrets” and “codes.”
We who are listening for the voice of God need to recognize conspiracy theories when we see them. We also need to know how to respond. That’s where I want to go in the next few days as we mark fifty years of conspiracy theories about the tragic death of President Kennedy.