One of the perks of growing up in the Texas Panhandle was that I could see most of the United States from my front porch. Or so it seemed. It was that flat.
This also meant that if you ever want to actually find the end of a rainbow, that’s the place to be. You can spot where both ends of the arc kiss the earth.
Speaking of rainbows, they were the stuff of my Sunday School years, along with candy and campfire songs. Noah, the animals two-by-two, and finally the multicolored memento that God wouldn’t liquidate the earth again.
The rainbow made for a pretty ending to an ugly story, but, honestly, that about exhausted its meaning for me. I wasn’t worried about a second worldwide flood. The rainbow was just a colorful biblical footnote in that wild, meandering collection of stories in the Old Testament.
Later, when I learned Hebrew and began an in-depth study of the Scriptures, I realized that there was so much more to that bright bridge shining in the sky. Here we see our Father at work, finger-painting in the heavens a picture of redemption. The rainbow is the color and shape of salvation. Here’s why.
From Homer to Australia to Thor
First, just to clarify a point regarding the rainbow and its symbolism: because the rainbow is a natural phenomenon—and not a text or manmade image—it has been appropriated in a variety of ways by cultures and religions worldwide. Ordinarily, the iconic value is drawn either from its shape (a bridge, bow, sky serpent) or its colors.
For instance, in the Greek mythology of Homer’s Iliad, Isis is a messenger of the gods. She is the personification of the rainbow, which is understood to be the bridge between heaven and earth. In Hinduism, the rainbow is the iconic weapon of the god Indra, who is associated with lightning, storms, and war. Myths of a Rainbow Serpent are common in Australian aboriginal cultures. And if you’ve watched the Marvel movies featuring Thor, you’ll recall the burning rainbow bridge of Norse legend that is called Bifröst. It connects Asgard to Earth.
None of this should be surprising. Rainbows are beautiful, captivating, and—especially to ancient peoples—mysterious. That a celestial phenomenon should be appropriated worldwide for iconic value or to illustrate a mythological legend makes perfect sense. One cannot copyright the rainbow.
When we turn from mythology to the biblical narrative of salvation, what do we find concerning the rainbow?
Retiring the Weapon in the Sky
Let’s note, to begin with, that Old Testament Hebrew has no unique word for rainbow. Yes, some English translations, such as the NIV, will render Genesis 9:13 as, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds.” But the Hebrew word translated as “rainbow,” qeshet (קֶשֶׁת), simply means a bow, as in “bow and arrows.” The noun qeshet, which occurs about seventy-five times in the Old Testament, almost without exception refers to the arrow-shooting implement.
What we see in the heavens, therefore, is none other than a weapon of war.
This is fascinating on multiple levels. First, in ancient Near Eastern mythology, the bow was frequently associated with hawkish warmongering among the gods, who seemed to lick their lips for any chance to brawl with each other. For example, in the Mesopotamian creation myth known as the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk suspended a constellation of stars in the shape of a bow after he defeated Tiamat.
The biblical account could not be more different. The bow is not an icon of Yahweh’s conquest of this or that deity. According to Genesis, the only one against whom the Lord had engaged in war was sin-soaked humanity. He shot oceans of arrows onto the earth, as it were. Now, this bow is suspended, hanging in the heavens, not drawn back.
Like an unloaded pistol in a celestial display case, this colorful weapon of war has been retired.
Second, as if to double-down on the non-aggressive symbolism, the bow is pointed heavenward, not earthward. It’s not an unloaded gun still waved in humanity’s face, as if to remind us that we better be good boys and girls or God will send a second deluge. No, it is pointed up, at God, not down, at us.
The instrument of execution has been changed into an emblem of peace. A hawk become a dove. A sword hammered into a plowshare. Now every time God sees his bow, he who never forgets will nevertheless remember his oath never to draw it again to punish the earth by a cosmopolitan flood.
Wait, It Gets Even Better
But hold on, because the story gets even better. In two prophetic visions, Jesus appears wrapped in the radiance of this beautiful bow of peace.
Ezekiel saw him first. In this prophet’s vision, he saw on the throne of Yahweh “a likeness with a human appearance” (Ezek 1:26). The Hebrew could be translated, “with the appearance of a man” or “a human form.” The brightness all around him, the glory encircling this man-like God, was “like the appearance of the [rain]bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain” (1:28).
Who exactly did Ezekiel see? He saw the Son of God, for John had the same kind of vision. In Revelation, John sees the throne of God and of the Lamb. And “around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (4:2). John saw Christ, the God-become-man, enveloped by a rainbow that surrounded the divine throne of his Father.
Thus, as the story in Scripture unfolds, not only does the bow remain a token of God’s promise of peace, iconic in the heavens; it also becomes associated with the manifestation of Jesus Christ, enthroned in glory.
One More (Baptismal) Wrinkle
And there’s yet one more wrinkle to this story. That ancient flood, which drowned the unbelieving world, but through which Noah and his household were saved, was a foreshadowing of the flood of regeneration and renewal which God the Father works in our baptisms.
Peter says that “baptism, which corresponds to this [flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” (1 Pet 3:21).
The flood, which both killed and kept alive, was a predecessor to baptism, which drowns the old Adam within us and makes us alive by uniting us to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 8:3-4).
The Two Ends of the Rainbow Unite Genesis to Revelation
Pulling together the entire biblical witness about the rainbow, what do we find?
The two ends of the rainbow join together the two ends of the Bible, uniting Genesis to Revelation, and everything in between. When we are baptized, the Lord drowns us in that flood, then raises us alive out of those waters to enter a new and better ark—the body of Jesus. The radiance of the rainbow envelops our saving Lord. This colored arc betokens that he is the one who has endured divine judgment, made peace between God and man, and ushered us into a new creation, where he sits enthroned as King of kings.
Whatever the rainbow meant to ancient religions and peoples, and whatever cultural symbolism it still has today, is interesting and instructive. People have always adopted it and adapted it—and probably always will—to convey a message or embody a story. Fine.
For the followers of Jesus, however, the rainbow has a unique meaning, rooted in the story of salvation: the rainbow betokens peace, divine life, and baptismal unity with the Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now that’s a symbol of salvation worth teaching and celebrating.