What Rainbows Really Mean (In the Bible)

by Jerry Shepherd: http://www.therecapitulator.com/rainbow-flags-proudly-may-they-wave/

 

In the city in which I reside, Edmonton, Alberta, the mayor and city council have decided to fly a rainbow flag over City Hall for the duration of the 2014 Winter Olympics.  In doing so, they join a number of other cities across Canada which have decided to do the same, including Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and St. John’s; subsequently, Calgary has joined the group as well.  Perhaps there will be others. I believe this may have happened in some US cities as well.

Now, my reaction to this is mixed.  On the one hand, I am extremely and pleasantly surprised and delighted by this development.  I don’t often have occasion to drive downtown by City Hall; but I think that, sometime during the next week-and-a-half I will do so, just to be able to say that I did indeed see it with my own eyes, and not just in a photograph or news video.

On the other hand, though, to say that I am surprised by this action is, to say the least, quite an understatement.  Actually, I am absolutely shocked by this decision.  And, that so many cities across Canada have decided to do this is completely mind-boggling.  That Edmonton and Calgary have done this is, perhaps, not as surprising, since these cities are located in what could arguably be referred to as Canada’s Bible-belt.  But that Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver have decided to do this is nothing short of seismic.  I never thought, in the current societal context of tolerance and pluralism, that these large metropolitan areas would have given such explicit endorsement to Judeo-Christian religion by prominently displaying one of its most important symbols.

Nevertheless, despite my shock, I am, as I said, extremely delighted by this.  Indeed, part of my rejoicing over this development is that it affords me the opportunity to do a biblical-theological blog post about something which is currently so front and center in the news.

There are four places in the Bible where a rainbow plays a very significant role.

(1) Genesis 9

At the end of the flood narrative, when the waters have finally receded and Noah and his family have disemb-ark-ed (bit of a pun!), God enters into a covenant with Noah and with all humanity.  The relevant passage comes in vv. 9-17:

9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you–every living creature on earth.  11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come:  13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.  16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

The rainbow, in this passage, serves as the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and all life on the face of the earth.  Now, one very important thing to point out about this passage is that there is no word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament that actually means “rainbow.”  The word which is translated as “rainbow” in this passage is the Hebrew word qeshet, which, in 71 of its 75 occurrences in the Old Testament, simply means, “bow”; that is, the battle bow, the instrument that one uses to shoot arrows.  Indeed, perhaps a majority of modern commentators on Genesis understand that, even though the word qeshet in Genesis 9 is, in fact, referring to the rainbow in the sky, the rainbow itself is serving as a symbol of the battle bow.  God has finished warring against the earth in destroying all life by the waters of the flood.  Now, to symbolize his promise to never again destroy all life on earth by the waters of a flood, he “hangs up his bow,” much as a gunslinger in an old western “hangs up his gun,” promising never to use it again.  Interestingly, in this passage, even though the bow is, to be sure, a symbol for humanity to see, the text actually states that it is really more a symbol for God to look at: “Whenever the bow appears in the clouds, I [God] will see it and remember . . .”  So the “bow” or “rainbow” in this passage is symbolic of God’s warring activity against the earth in the flood.  When God looks at his “bow” which he has hung up in the sky, he will remember that he “has hung up his guns” and not destroy all life on earth by means of a flood again.  The colors of the “rainbow” are fairly irrelevant. This is not a “Care Bear” rainbow; rather it is a bow which is symbolic of the warfare that God conducted against the earth in the flood.

(2) Ezekiel 1

Perhaps the most famous chapter in the book of Ezekiel is the very first one, where “Ezekiel saw de wheel.”  Ezekiel has this vision by the Kebar River in the land of Babylon, where he lives among a community of exiles from Judah.  Without going into all the exegetical details, I would simply summarize this chapter as follows: Ezekiel is given a vision of a “contraption,” consisting of four living creatures and four very large wheels.  On top of this contraption there is a flat platform, and on top of the platform there is a throne on which the Lord Almighty is sitting. What becomes clear in this vision and in the rest of the book of Ezekiel is that this “contraption” is actually a war chariot.  The Lord Almighty, on top of the chariot, is about to wage war.   And the nation against whom he is about to wage war is his own nation, the people of Judah.  Ezekiel’s message to the exiles is that the country from which they have been exiled, the land of Judah, is going to suffer yet more punishment on account of their rebellion against the Lord, and that the Lord is going to wage warfare against his own people by way of the devastation Babylon will execute on the people of Judah.

At the end of the chapter, after having described the living creatures, the wheels, the platform, and the throne, Ezekiel finally describes the one who is sitting on the throne, the Almighty, the Lord:

26 Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man.   27I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him.   28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.  (Ezek 1:26-28

For only the second time, and last time, in the Old Testament, there is a reference to a rainbow.  But again, just as in the Genesis 9 passage, the word translated “rainbow” here is qeshet, a word that normally refers to the battle bow.  This is highly significant, given the warfare imagery in this chapter.  Again, even though the word qeshet is referring to a rainbow, the rainbow itself in this passage refers to the battle bow.  Notice that Ezekiel says that the bow “surrounded” the one sitting on the throne.  Below I have inserted a drawing based on ceramic that comes from the ninth century BC, three hundred years prior to Ezekiel.  It depicts the Assyrian deity, the storm-god Asshur, flying through the heavens with a drawn bow, preparing to shoot his arrows at some enemy.  Note, however, what this bow actually is.

Asshur is seen here against the background of a sun disc.  Either the sun disc itself, or another circular object (a rainbow?) set against the sun, has turned into a battle bow in Asshur’s hands.  Asshur with the aura of the sun surrounding him, and perhaps a rainbow as well, is pictured here as a storm god, a warrior deity.

When God gives Ezekiel the vision which is recorded for us in chapter 1, he does so, utilizing symbolism and imagery with which Ezekiel would have already been familiar.  Again, this is not a “Care Bear” rainbow.  It is, rather, symbolic of the warfare that God is about to conduct against the people of Judah on account of their centuries of rebellion against his rule.  There is no mistaking what God is communicating to Ezekiel in this vision.  God is sitting on his throne, riding his war chariot, and surrounded by a brilliantly shining rainbow, i.e., battle bow, with which he is about to shoot his arrows at his enemies—in this case, his own people who have been in rebellion against him.

Will things be any different as we go into the New Testament?

(3) Revelation 4

There are only two places in the New Testament where a rainbow is mentioned; both are in the book of Revelation.

In Revelation 4:1-3, John relates what he saw:

1After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”   2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.  3 And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.

Any serious scholar of the book of Revelation will tell you that in order to understand this book you also have to be acquainted with the book of Ezekiel.  Notice how the scene here and the scene in Ezekiel 1 compare.

First, in both, there is a vision of the Lord on his throne.

Second, in both, the Lord is surrounded by a rainbow.

Third, note that in Rev 4:5, John records that “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder.” The same phenomena are in the vision in Ezekiel 1 (vv. 4-5, 13-14, 24).

Fourth, the living creatures from Ezekiel 1 show up again in Rev 4:7-9.

Fifth, the warfare theme which we already saw in Ezekiel 1 is operative again in Revelation 4 and the chapters that follow.  Revelation 4-5 has to do with who is able to able to open the seals which, when opened, will unleash horrible vengeance and destruction against the enemies of God and the enemies of his people.  The Lamb, in the center of the throne, is found worthy to open these seals.

Whether or not the rainbow serves the same function as it does in Genesis 9 and Ezekiel, that is, as a battle bow, perhaps cannot be determined exactly.  But, in light of these comparisons, one thing does seem sure.  The description of the rainbow in Revelation 4 is not for the purpose of engendering warm and fuzzy feelings.  Rather, the rainbow encircling the throne contributes to the imagery of the awesome warrior God who sits on that throne.

(4) Revelation 10

Very briefly, note that even one of God’s servants, one of the angels, gets to be accompanied by the rainbow:

1Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.   2 He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land,  3 and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke.   4 And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.”   5Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven.   6 And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!   7 But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”  (Rev 10:1-7)

It will be sufficient to note here that, again, the context is one of the judgment; indeed, judgment at its grand finale—”There will be no more delay.”

So, hopefully, you can see now why I was absolutely delighted when all these municipal governments decided to overtly display this Judeo-Christian symbol on flags over their respective city halls.  But, surely, you’ll also understand why I was so shocked that they chose this particular symbol, indicative of God’s righteous judgment against everything that he considers to be wicked and sinful, things that are listed in passages like Romans 1,  1 Corinthians 6, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 1, and other places in the New Testament.  It is amazing that so many governmental leaders would give witness to the righteous judgment of God.

Okay, I know, I know.  This is not the reason they are flying this flag.  But, this would not be the first time something like this has happened.  The Gospel of John records that one day the high priest spoke out in the Sanhedrin, arguing that they should put Jesus to death because it would be “better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50).  John, then, goes on to tell us that Caiaphas “did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one” (vv. 51-52).  Commentators and scholars sometimes refer to this and other similar incidents in the Bible as that of someone “speaking better than they know.”   God, in his sovereignty, orchestrates things in such a way that people unwittingly, despite their own intentions,  give witness to his greatness, his majesty, his holiness.  Perhaps, in the case of these flags, this is one more example of such a phenomenon.  Proudly may they wave.

Author: Alex the Less

My education: BA (Bible), M.Div, BBA (HRM). Also, I have been a professional carpenter for about 25 years. Now retired, I have more time to study the bible and write about it.

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