February 22, 2015
First Reading: Genesis 9:8-15
There is something divine about a rainbow. When you look up in the sky and see a multicolored arc looking back at you, the child inside is smitten with wonder. A question arises – Is it all true? Are all the stories I believed actually real? Do I really live in a world of wonder, of beauty, of adventure? A rainbow gives us hope that life really isn’t just about death and taxes, but much, much more. It is a clue to the meaning of the universe and where we stand within it.
After the disastrous Flood, Noah worships God with sacrificial offerings. In a repeat of the Creation story earlier in Genesis, God blesses Noah and commands him to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:1). Humanity gets a second chance. After having fallen into error and rebellion, God wipes the slate clean and offers us a new opportunity. As part of that re-creation, he establishes a new covenant with Noah and promises that he will never again destroy the world by flood. This new covenant is unconditional. God has seen that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21 RSV), and so has decided to keep the race going in spite of itself. Our first parents sinned, and their children, and their children. God knew it would happen, but he allows the history of sin to unfold in order that he might bring us redemption. We couldn’t handle the freedom he granted us from the beginning.
A Rainbow to Remember
As a sign of his new promise, his new covenant with Noah and all his descendants, which encompasses humanity, the Lord grants Noah a beautiful rainbow. The rainbow serves as a reminder, a celestial Post-It note for God to remember his promise not to send another devastating Flood. The rainbow in biblical symbolism is not just an optical phenomenon, but part of God’s personal armament.
God’s Rainbow Weapon
When God establishes peace with Noah by putting his rainbow in the sky, we get a vague sense of cessation of hostility, but other biblical passages clue us in to the idea that the rainbow is God’s bow for shooting arrows of lightening, clarifying the peace-treaty nature of the covenant. Thus Habbakuk:
Thou didst strip the sheath from thy bow,
and put the arrows to the string.
Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers.
The mountains saw thee, and writhed;
the raging waters swept on;
the deep gave forth its voice,
it lifted its hands on high.
The sun and moon stood still in their habitation
at the light of thine arrows as they sped,
at the flash of thy glittering spear. (Hab 3:9-11 RSV)
When God hangs up his bow in the sky (Gen 9:13), he is putting away the “weapon” he used to rain down the thunderstorm waters of the Flood. Just in case you have any doubts about whether rainbows can be weaponized by a divine being, Psalm 7 insists:
If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts. (Psa 7:12-13 RSV)
The “fiery shafts” are not flaming arrows, but lightning bolts shot from the sky. The idea of the rainbow being a weapon of the gods is also found in the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian epic, in which the god Marduk slays another divinity and then puts his bow in the sky as a constellation.
The Wonder of the Rainbow
Rainbows are the most improbable things. While they follow the laws of optics, they are unusually spectacular to sight in the sky. The light from the sun reflects off the back of spherical raindrops and refracts—changes direction—through the drop. The light “turns” toward us at an angle of about 42°. The white light of the sun is separated out into its many individual colors since the refraction differs based on the wavelengths of light. The raindrops act as tiny prisms, separating out the many colors hidden within sunlight. Depending on the optics at work, you might get to see a double rainbow, a full circle rainbow (usually from an airplane), a monochrome rainbow at sunset or even a moonbow (caused by moonlight).
Rainbows are Personal
What strikes me as especially significant in the science of rainbows is that every rainbow is personal. That is, no two observers see the exact same rainbow since the appearance of the bow depends on the standpoint of the observer. In the same way that no two people see the exact same thing in a mirror, the reflected and refracted light coming from the raindrops arrives on an individual basis. If conditions are right, it can even feel like a rainbow is stalking you, following your every move, since as you shift positions, you see new rainbows from every new point of observation. The rainbow reminds us that we inhabit a reality far greater than ourselves and yet that reality is disclosed to each of us in a uniquely personal way.
Praising the Rainbow-Maker
God offers the rainbow to Noah as a sign of his oath. It is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to his promises, a sign of hope, a wonder-inducing sight of awe. The rainbow is meant to inspire us, to push us past the humdrum of everyday life to remember how amazing it is that God created us in the first place, that he allows us to inhabit his creation, that he preserves us from day to day, and even offers us his friendship. The rainbow should prompt our hearts to praise the God who gave it to us, as Sirach encourages us:
Look upon the rainbow, and praise him who made it,
exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.
It encircles the heaven with its glorious arc;
the hands of the Most High have stretched it out. (Sir 43:11-12 RSV)