There is something fascinating and wonderful about rainbows. Their colors hold great beauty and promise. I’ve seen the most magnificent rainbows in Hawaii. Every time I’ve visited its many waterfalls, watched the crashing waves at its beaches, or trekked its mountainous rainforests, rainbows appeared—rainbows everywhere. No matter how many rainbows I’ve seen; I always marvel with awe. It’s no wonder there are so many songs about rainbows.
I find that rainbows are also used in biblical stories as signs and metaphors. God’s rainbows, however, do not reflect the myths and dreams we typically associate with rainbows. They portray more than beauty and promise, as God appears with a rainbow halo emanating from behind in radiant brilliance (Ezekiel 1:28). The Bible attaches great significance to rainbows, which communicate a truth about God.
At the end of the flood story, a rainbow fills the sky (Genesis 9:8–17). The traditional story portrays a God who is angry with humanity’s evil and destroys every breathing being to make the world good again. God’s solution was a violent flood, but it did not solve the problem. If the goal was to rid humans of violence, the plan failed miserably. Evil was not destroyed, yet some still insist that God will use a similar solution of might and violence to eliminate evil.
Through the flood story, we realize that God has a solution to the problem of evil, but it’s not the most obvious one of destroying all bad people. God can stop the chaos; He can put a check on sin. That’s not a problem for Him. Though God can destroy evil, the flood proved that destroying sinful human beings will not rid us of evil. Today’s world remains filled with violence; we are no different than we were in the days of Noah. Is God’s solution to destroy all of us? Surprisingly, God has a different response: “Never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done” (Genesis 8:21, NIV).
How do you turn a self-seeking world toward love and peace? Can you force it into love and peace? God promised never again! He promised to find another way to defeat human wickedness, and the rainbow is a sign of the covenant of grace, the gracious way in which God chooses to solve the problem (Genesis 3:15). God’s power and might are not in question, but using them is not His plan. His ultimate desires are love and mercy, not judgment. God’s rainbow is a sign of peace, bent toward grace, blessing, and life. We are the subjects of a loving God, and the rainbow in the flood story encourages us to expect compassion and benevolence from Him (Isaiah 54:9–10).
God shines His love upon us through the rays of divine light, calling on us to lay down our weapons. We despoil and harm the earth, damaging what God has created. After a while, this brings destruction and chaos. Given our inhumanity toward others and the damage we inflict on the earth, we survive only because of God’s mercy. God does not want us to destroy ourselves, others, or the world that He loves. He wants us to recognize the harm we are doing to one another and to the earth and to grasp—to the best of our ability—the emblem of His mercy, where peace and hope reign.
The rainbow tells me that God is not behind the chaos, suffering, and violence in our world. He is not the one inflicting us but the one offering His covenant of grace as a solution to our problems, making real the hopeful vision of a world filled with God’s love and blessing.
It is sad that we often depict God’s dealings with the world as retributive savagery—as the horrors of flood and fire. Though we hear the message that there will be no more water, we look to solve problems through another round of judgment in fire and brimstone—the reprobate suffering for all eternity. Are we subjects of an arbitrary God focused on judging humans or a loving creator who is less motivated by judgment than by saving and healing? Many look for God to punish the inhabitants of this world, but the rainbow tells us that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).
We’ve all heard that God loves the world. We see this slogan slapped on bumper stickers and billboards. When we think of God’s love merely as this churchy cliché, however, we betray some historical misunderstandings because God’s bow in the sky refutes some popularly held notions. Consider the following perspective from history. The word for rainbow is simply the word for a “bow,” the same word for a weapon of war. A rainbow is shaped like an archers bow, seemingly telling us that God has laid down His bow and promised “Never again” to the survivors of the flood—even if mankind does not change! God’s bow bends away from humanity and towards His dwelling. A rainbow is not God holding a weapon over mankind but a sign of peace. It’s God’s disarmed bow, a relinquished weapon laid down as an eternal sign of His love. It tells us of His mercy from the highest heaven, and even as we shoot arrows up at God and go against His will, He responds with compassion.
The gods of ancient myths were not loving and would never relinquish their power or lay down their lives for the world. In the Mesopotamian epic, Marduk made a constellation out of his bow, a bow in the sky that was a sign of triumph over his enemies (Enuma Elish 6.82-90). That God loves His creation—the animals and the earth—and lays down His life for it through His commitment to remain covenantally faithful to His unfailing love is therefore an amazing message within the context of ancient god’s. The mystery of God’s rainbow-arched throne tells of His wonderful grace that is to pervade the universe (Revelation 4:3).
The rainbow does not guarantee that God will never allow the earth to be judged again, defiled by the sins of humanity. God will allow judgment when it is appropriate, for the consequences of sin remain, but the flood isn’t an arbitrary punishment inflicted on human beings. God does not explode through the sky to blast humanity’s evil. The flood has a cosmic texture, and its story conveys our fragility as well as the damage we do to one another and to this earth. It is a symbol of human failure and shows how the results of our self-seeking ways will outlive us. The destruction and chaos are described as the effects of an increasingly violent mankind that emerges as divine restraint is loosened, “with no divine act of intervention” (Terence Fretheim, God and World, p. 80). God does not erase our sin’s effects, but the emblem of the rainbow assures us that we have a guaranteed lover who wants to rescue us and bring healing rays of light into the world.
The next time you see a rainbow, consider how our self-seeking choices combine to cause irreparable damage but know that we can change. God’s precious promise of grace is the solution. It is a promise that His self-renouncing love can save us and the world, and manifesting His grace and love to others is the only way to secure this promise. God’s rainbow is a beautiful story; it’s God’s love for the cosmos refracted by light.
So, when you look up at a rainbow, appreciate its beauty but consider the theology of the rainbow that is embedded within the heart of God. I believe that if we know where to look, we can see what’s on the other side of the rainbow. The rainbow’s story encourages us to expect compassion, mercy, and grace there.
Craig Ashton Jr.