In the same line of thought as the first part of this post last week, I want to go back and look at the symbol of the rainbow. As it seems obvious to those who haven’t been living in a cultural cave, the rainbow flag is a symbol of the LGBT community, one that represents their pride in their identity and their community’s general tone of inclusion. But the rainbow has also stood as a symbol of God’s faithfulness to preserve the natural order. In Genesis 9 we read the account of Noah who has just been delivered from an oppressively wicked world by a great global flood. This flood was a horrible judgment from God’s hand because of humanity’s rebellion against their Creator. So the flood-waters receded, Noah stepped off the ark (the vessel of his salvation), made a sacrifice that was pleasing to God, and then God speaks to Noah, making a covenant with him whereby God issues His promises of preservation. And then God gives Noah a physical symbol to represent that covenant: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
So far so good, right? Most of this is common currency for those who have been raised in the church and cut their teeth on the biblical stories. But the waters are deeper here than many surmise, and given the rise of the rainbow as a symbol for a competing kingdom, we would do well as God’s people to look at God’s bow in the sky again.
First, as has been noted by some scholars, the Noahic rainbow was not given first and foremost to remind humanity of anything but to “remind” God of His covenant of preservation. Notice how verse 14 of Genesis 9 picks back up from the quote earlier: “14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Of course, God doesn’t forget His promises. Rather He is giving humanity a physical sign of a spiritual reality that is showing us that God will make good on His word. And in our remembering, we know that though judgment has fallen, yet God has brought life out of death.
Second, the Hebrew word translated “bow” is the word qeset, which elsewhere almost exclusively refers to a war-bow. So it seems the text is implying that God was at war with humanity because of their wickedness, but because His wrath has been satiated, He has shelved His war-bow in the sky. Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline put it this way: “My bow translates qeset, the usual meaning of which is the weapon. Thus, the recurring rainbow imposed on the retreating storm by the shining again of the sun is God’s battle bow laid aside, a token of grace staying the lightning-shafts of wrath” [quoted in Robertson’s Christ of the Covenants (1980), n.124]. So in this context, the rainbow is both a promise that flood waters will never again cover the earth, but also a reminder that God is a Lord not to be trifled with.
Tune in in the days to come to see how the rainbow shows up in a couple other places in the Bible.