At the end of the story of Noah’s Ark, God makes a promise to humankind, that a flood will never again wipe out life on earth. God creates a sign for all to see – a rainbow – as a reminder of this covenant.
As a kid, I was taught that the rainbow was God’s reminder to help people remember that God loves us.
But that’s not what the Bible says about the purpose of the rainbow.
Here’s Genesis 9:12-15
God said, ‘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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 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.
Did you notice that?
The rainbow is not a sign for people to remember God’s promise. It’s a sign for God to remember God’s promise.
In case it’s unclear, God immediately reiterates:
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.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’ (Genesis 12:16-17)
According to Genesis, the rainbow is a component in God’s system of self-control. It’s God’s own personal reminder, God’s push notification, that God has made a decision not to use God’s awesome and terrible power to destroy the world, even though God might want to.
For me, it’s a little unnerving to think that God needs to check himself, to set up safeguards, to avoid committing acts of mass destruction. Is God fickle? Is the promise tenuous? On first glance it kind of seems that way.
But if you ponder the story for a little bit, a wiser explanation arises. The rainbow, established in the infancy of humankind, is a sign of God’s eternal understanding and wisdom about the limited value of violence, even if violence is deserved.
It’s always tempting to respond to hurt with more hurt, to give back hate when you’ve been hated. If someone causes trouble or pain, we want to throw trouble and pain back on them, doubly so. The Great Flood was the ultimate act of violence and destruction, visited appropriately enough on a world full of violent and destructive people.
But the flood did not bring about peace and goodwill on the earth. It didn’t fundamentally change the way people would relate to one another, to creation at large, or to God. People are still people, even after the flood.
Just like nations in the 20th Century learned that there would never be a ‘war to end all wars’, the Great Flood shows there is no ‘wrath to end all wrath,’ or ‘punishment to end all punishment’.
The way of God, therefore, must not be to amplify the viciousness of people, to outdo humankind at acts of brutality. God’s way must be to respond to hate with love, to offer mercy in the face of malice, and to send healing into the malaise of brokenness.
The rainbow is God’s own reminder to God – we won’t multiply enmity, we won’t add to the hurt, we won’t do what we know doesn’t work. We’ll choose a different way instead, and it won’t provide easy solutions to every problem, or a safe path through conflict. We won’t settle every score, satisfy every urge, or stoke the egos of the righteous.
The rainbow is the sign of a new day, and a new way, and God sees it and remembers. We will choose life in the face of death.
The Table is a Christian church in Davenport, Iowa, pursuing transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Worship Sundays at 5pm
102 E. Second St. in Davenport