Symbols can be powerful things. They can tell you at a glance a lot about a person who uses them. They can cause people to suddenly smile, or become angry. But I don’t think any symbol has been adopted by more groups of people and used to mean such a wide variety of things as the rainbow. Outside it’s biblical meaning – in Irish mythology it is the place Leprechauns stash their gold and a sign of the quest for riches, during the Peasants War in Germany it became a political sign of the reformation movement, in 1939 Judy garland sang “Over the Rainbow” and it became a symbol of wishes come true, in the 1940’s the Christian Cursillo renewal movement embraced the rainbow and the Spanish folk song De Colores as a celebration of new creation in Christ, in the 1960’s it was used in peace demonstrations, in the 1970’s it became the symbol of LGBTQ pride, in the 1980’s the “Rainbow Bridge” became the assurance to many that All Dogs Go to Heaven and recently in England, the NHS (National Health Service – free public medical care) has tried to use it which has brought both criticism and confusion to them, their supporters and the general public who has tried to figure out what social or political message is being sent. You may have seen Paul Hollywood’s regrettable rainbow bagels on the Great British Bake Off last season.
Noah and his ark have also had an unusual cultural history. In the 1800’s and perhaps earlier than that it was one of the few toys children were allowed to play with on Sundays or the Sabbath, an early notion of Godly play. It later became a popular theme for nursery decorations and in Corpus Christi, TX there is a shelter for children entering the foster care program called Noah’s Ark . Of course there are no Titanic like scenes depicted in these children’s versions, though I imagine a good number of little boys used their knowledge of the story and their imagination to create havoc in the waters.
What is odd about all these varieties of uses of the rainbow and Noah and the Ark is that most of them miss the point of the story which means that over time the symbol of the rainbow has become confused.
The Bible begins with creation, then the story of Adam and Eve and their failure to keep God’s commandments. Their great sin was the desire to be like God to the point of disbelieving that God had their best interest in mind. They consciously defied God choosing to believe they knew better. The consequence was they were removed from the garden, from the immediate presence of God, and had to start working in order to eat and have protection from the elements. The other thing that happened was the relationship human to human was also corrupted. This is demonstrated in the story of Cain and Abel where Cain kills his brother out of jealousy because Abel’s offering to God was accepted and Cain’s was not. Chapter 6 of Genesis begins by telling us that human life on earth had become so corrupt that it breached the boundaries between the human and divine realms. The story of the Nephilim mirror stories in Greek mythology of heavenly beings having sexual relationships with humans and this story may point to the embracing of pagan religions. It was romanticized in the 1998 movie City of Angels, but scriptures state it was a sign of the total depravity of humanity. We are told in verse 6 that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
Enter Noah – Noah seems to be the one person on earth at this time that was still in constant communication with God. One man left in all of creation that continued to say his prayers and God let him in on God’s plans for salvation. God determined to flood the earth, to cleans it with water and to start over with Noah and his family. (This becomes an foreshadowing of baptism.) We have a tendence to focus on Noah saving the animals and fail to see that God saved Noah when he brought judgement to the rest of the earth because of human corruption. Even the Bible does not dwell on what happened outside of the ark. It is too horrible to comprehend and while the judgement was executed, the mercy of God is demonstrated in sparing Noah, his family, and two of every animal is the focus of the story.
When the waters had subsided and the ground was dry enough to walk on – symbolized by the dove returning with an olive branch in her mouth (another powerful symbol) Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark. The first thing Noah does is build an altar. He doesn’t pitch his tent and get settled, he makes a thanksgiving offering to God by offering one of every ritually clean animal and bird (he had taken more than two of each of these) and sacrificing them to God. This would have been a timely and strenuous task for someone having just spent 40 days at sea, so to speak. God in turn, in appreciation for Noah’s righteousness – his right relationship to God – makes a covenant with Noah. God promises he will never again, as long as the earth endures, curse the ground because of humans. God acknowledges the sinful nature of humans and agrees to remain in relationship but there were some conditions, some acknowledgements of the state of things that God clarifies. Animals will now fear humans, but humans will now be allowed to eat meat. God claims right to the blood – the life of all animals, including humans belongs to God. It is forbidden for one human to take the life of another and God states that “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed: for in his own image God made humankind.” (Gen 9:6)
The story of Noah explains further the situation humanity had created for itself. It explained the conflict between humans and the rest of nature. It explained why humans were allowed to eat meat, but the blood was forbidden. Even today there are pagan cultures that sacrifice animals and drink the blood believing they can absorb the life force of that animal. God says this is strictly forbidden. The life of all creatures belongs to God, only the carcass is ours for nourishment.
The consequence of murder is the loss of one’s life at the hands of another. I think this may be more a statement of fact than a command. Jesus says those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In ancient times this led to revenge, and later passages of the Bible address this. Moses’ “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” was an early attempt to curb feuds and make the punishment fit the crime. Today we focus on the recognition that all life belongs to God and is therefore to be cherished.
And finally, the rainbow –
The rainbow is a symbol of the covenant God made with all creation. It is a reminder to us of our sinful nature and God’s mercy. God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” The rainbow is our sign of God’s presence, God’s promise to love and care for all of God’s creation, and a reminder to us of the mercy God has show in the past and will continue to show in the future. We may each embrace one of the historical meanings behind the symbol of the rainbow. It is obviously a powerful and meaningful symbol, but when we see a rainbow – let’s us also remember the true meaning of its symbol – a reminder of our sins, but the promise of God’s mercy and redemption.