What’s the meaning behind the sign in the sky that God gives Noah?
One afternoon, a few years ago, I looked out my office window and saw a rainbow. I told our synagogue’s education director, and at her wise suggestion we gathered the Hebrew school kids to see and recite the blessing over it. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to God’s covenant, and keeps God’s promise.) It was one of those perfect spontaneous educational moments that I’ll always remember.
And remembering is really what a rainbow is about, at least for God. After the flood, God establishes a covenant with Noah and sets the rainbow as a sign of this covenant “between Me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13), says God:
When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9:14-15)
The rainbow, it seems, is a way for God to remember about the covenant not to destroy the earth. God, we suspect, will get angry at us humans, every so often, and perhaps desire to destroy the world again, but the rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise not to.
But why is a rainbow the symbol of this covenant? And what should it mean to us?
A rainbow is not just a rainbow, according to Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor (12th-century France). Rather, it’s God showing God’s self. This is based on a verse from Ezekiel comparing God’s presence to a rainbow:
Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain… was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. (Ezekiel 1:28)
We can assume God wouldn’t show God’s self if God intended to destroy the world, so us seeing a rainbow—the presence of God—is indeed a good sign!
Actually, some say the rainbow itself isn’t the symbol, but rather, it’s the fact that the rainbow is seen in the clouds. Originally, suggests Rabbi Isaac Caro (a 15th-16th-century Sephardic scholar and uncle of Shulchan Aruch author Joseph Caro), rainbows couldn’t be seen from earth because they were obscured by thick clouds —and it was these heavy, thick clouds that produced the flood rains. But after the flood, Caro posits, God thinned out the clouds, rendering them incapable of producing floods of this magnitude, and allowing rainbows to be seen. So, the symbol is not only the rainbow and our ability to see it, but the clouds too.
In another interpretation of the rainbow’s significance, Nahmanides (13th-century Spain) suggests it is a bow (as in a bow and arrow) that is no longer aimed at the earth. The flood was God taking aim at the earth, but the bow is now pointing away from earth, and it no longer has a string or arrows. Displaying this disabled weapon, is sort of like a ceasefire — holding your weapon pointing towards yourself, away from your initial target. In this sense, a rainbow is about God setting aside God’s anger and making peace with us.
Other Jewish scholars have seen the rainbow as a different kind of peace symbol. One medieval commentator saw a rainbow as a combination of fire and water, coexisting in perfect peace in the natural world.
A more modern approach from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century Germany) suggests that each of the different colors of the rainbow represents a different kind of person. In this reading, red, the outermost ring of the rainbow, is closest to the heavens and related to Adam — the person who was created most directly and immediately in God’s image. (Adam and the Hebrew word for “red” [adom] share the same root: the letters aleph, daled and mem.) The other colors represent people and other life forms that are further and further from God’s image, but the entire spectrum together is pure white light, representing God’s purity. Thus, the rainbow becomes a symbol of unity for all life.
Noticing that the rainbow is half of a circle, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (a prominent American-born Orthodox rabbi in Israel) writes:
The rainbow is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. God can pledge not to destroy humanity, but since God created humanity with freedom of choice, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.
This is to say that God will take care of God’s part of the rainbow, but we have to do our part, to be God’s partners in caring for the world. I love this interpretation, because it gives us an important job, and computes with my own sense of reality, of us having freedom of choice with which God will not interfere.
For me though, the rainbow is about seeing. As Kermit the Frog sang in The Muppet Movie, “Rainbows are visions, but also illusions. And rainbows have nothing to hide.”
A rainbow is the refraction of light through water drops, breaking up the white light so that we can see the various colors in its visible spectrum. A rainbow allows us to see something that we cannot usually see. And we see a rainbow at the liminal moment when the rain has ended but the air is still damp with moisture, when we can sense both the rain and the sun, both danger and opportunity.
We’ve all had moments in our lives when suddenly we see more clearly—when the clouds in front of our eyes are lifted, and we can see not just black and white, but many shades of color, of nuance. Maybe moral vision in the world was in black and white—good and evil, life or death, right or wrong, early in Genesis, throughout the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his generation. Suddenly though, after the flood, the clouds lift and both God and people can see colors they had never before seen. Suddenly, they can see nuance, and people are no longer all good or all bad.
Maybe this is why there are so many songs about rainbows!