In our passage last Sunday, the text took a swipe at the polytheistic religion of the Canaanites and made an assertion of Yahweh’s supremacy over all flesh. It was very subtle, but there nonetheless.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the Canaanites were polytheists – they believed in the existence of many gods, and even worshiped many gods. One key thing to keep in mind is that these gods were believed to be territorial. A god was sovereign, or lord, over each particular geographical area, with other lesser gods under them.
You may have noticed references in the Bible to a false god named Baal. Well, there wasn’t just one Baal, there were many. Numbers 25 tells of the Israelites engaging in the sinful worship of Baal of Peor. Israel was camping in Shittim at the time and Mount Peor was just south of there, so essentially they were worshiping the local god (along with other lesser gods in the area).
There are multiple references in the book of Judges to Israel’s worship of the Baals (Jdg 2:11, 13; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6, 10). Why multiple Baals? Because there were multiple places. Sometimes Baals were known by their place of rule, and sometimes a location was known by the Baal who reigned there: Baal-berith (Jdg 8:33), Baal-hermon (Jdg 3:3), Baal-meon (1Ch 5:8), Baal-perazim (2Sam 5:20), etc.
These Baals were considered sovereign in that they owned the land and the people over which they ruled. They were entitled to worship and tribute. They also had power over the weather – much Baal worship consisted of rites intended to entice the local Baal to send rain.
So what does all that have to do with what we read in Joshua 3? Well, remember that when we see “LORD” in all caps in our Bible, it is the traditional translation for the name “Yahweh.” (Why they don’t just translate it “Yahweh” is a story for another time.) Up until Joshua 3:11, every use of “LORD” has been in all caps. But in 3:11, for the first time in the book, we find “Lord” – one cap and the rest lower case. This is the English translation of the Hebrew word “adon”, which actually means “lord” or “master.”
So translated another way, Josh 3:11 reads, “Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Master of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan.” It comes up again in v13, “…the ark of the LORD, the Master of all the earth…” This is an explicit statement of Yahweh’s lordship, or ownership and authority over all the earth.
You see, our God is territorial, too. It’s just that His territory extends to all of creation. This helps us to understand why God has the right to do what He is planning to do with the Canaan land. In 3:10, Joshua tells the Israelites that Yahweh “will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.” How is it that God can take the land away from these people and give it to the Israelites? The Canaanites don’t own the land and neither do their gods. God is the Lord of ALL the earth and in driving out the inhabitants, He is not just driving out pagans, but He is also driving out their gods, a dramatic repudiation of these supposed local sovereigns.
In going before the people into the Jordan and stopping the flowing of the river, this Lord of all the earth was sending several messages to the inhabitants of the land. He was staking His rightful claim to the land; He was establishing Himself as sovereign over nature; and He was showing Himself to be the One True God over all flesh.
Though we may not recognize it, we can tend toward polytheism, too. We compartmentalize our lives, recognizing God’s lordship over some areas, but serving our own man-made gods in other areas. We don’t serve Baal-berith or Baal-peor today, but what about Baal-lust, Baal-greed, or Baal-gluttony? All of us at one time or another have given these gods, and others like them, an illegitimate claim in our lives. But God will not be denied what is rightfully His. We would be wise to drive out the little gods now, rather than waiting for God to take dramatic action to assert His lordship. After all, He is Lord of all, not Lord of some.