Connections 02.21.2021: Looking at Rainbows

Genesis 9:8-17

Ever since I took my first Old Testament course in college—and that was a long time ago—I’ve heard that the rainbow in the Noah story represents God’s unstrung war bow. The idea is that God, who has just finished waging war against the earth through the flood, has now removed the strings from God’s bow, thereby rendering it useless as a weapon, and has hung the bow in the sky.

The colors of the rainbow that we ooh and aah over seem to be incidental, unless we are to assume that when God looks at the rainbow, the colors are among the things God notices that remind God of the covenant. But the text doesn’t say that. The emphasis is clearly on the unstrung bow.

It’s interesting that God says that the bow is there to remind God of the covenant between God and the earth and between God and people and other living creatures. It’s also interesting that God doesn’t say anything about the rainbow being there to remind people of the covenant between God and them. We should emphasize what the text emphasizes, which is that the rainbow reminds God of God’s covenant with the earth.

We might wonder if God really needs to be reminded of God’s covenant. Indeed, we might wonder if God really needs to be reminded of anything.

I’m certain that God doesn’t. Why then does the text say that God does?

In the first place, we should keep in mind that all the stories in Genesis 1–11 are in fact stories. As stories, they use story-telling devices common to ancient narratives. One such device is anthropomorphism, which means to ascribe human characteristics to a divine being. One example of this is the depiction of God walking in the garden. God’s remembering God’s covenant when God sees a rainbow is another example of anthropomorphism.

In the second place, we should keep in mind that all the stories in Genesis 1–11 convey universal truth. This means that we should seek to ascertain, appreciate, and apply the overall truth that a story communicates rather than trying to force every detail into a scheme that makes logical sense to us. In the case of the story in this week’s lesson text, we will do well to focus on what it teaches us about God’s faithfulness to God’s creation.

I said earlier that the story doesn’t say that the rainbow is meant to remind Noah (and by extension humanity) of God’s commitment to God’s covenant with the earth. But the story does say that God tells Noah about the covenant. And it does say that God tells Noah that the rainbow will remind God of the covenant.

It is inevitable, then, that we will remember God’s covenant when we see a rainbow. At least that is the case for those who, like Noah, are aware of God’s faithfulness and are alert to and welcome affirmations of it.

In the story in this week’s Scripture passage, Noah got to hear God state God’s covenant commitment. Because the biblical storytellers, writers, and editors preserved this story, we get to hear it too.

We celebrate God’s covenant faithfulness.

How will we respond to it?

Discussion

  • Why do you think God establishes a covenant with the birds and animals as well as with humans?
  • Why is it important that God establishes the covenant with future generations?
  • An etiology is a story explaining the origin of something. How does this story function as an etiology? How does it go beyond merely explaining why rainbows exist?
  • February 21 is the first Sunday in Lent. What Lenten lessons does the lesson text teach us? How does it challenge us? How does it encourage us?

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara, grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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