Rainbows and Arrows: God’s Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-17)

20120609-150839.jpgSo the other day I was driving out of a storm, spray from the cars in front hitting my windscreen and iPod playing through the stereo. I glanced to my right and realised that I was driving towards a huge rainbow, beautiful in the sky and colouring the ominous chimneys of an old power station. And, just as I was busy being awestruck, a new track started playing, called ‘It Can’t Rain All The Time’. If I didn’t make a mental leap to the story of Noah, I’d’ve been duty bound to quit my Bible blog there and then.

The story of Noah is easily in the top ten best loved Bible stories, but it’s also one of those narratives that can become almost too familiar, giving us the impression there’s nothing left to learn from it. Okay, but the minute you think that is the minute you should be looking at the story with fresh eyes.

For instance, after 30-plus years of hearing and telling this story, today I discovered that, when, in Genesis 9, God uses a rainbow as a symbol that an event like the Flood will never happen again, there isn’t a specific Hebrew word used for “rainbow”. No, the word used is the Hebrew for “bow” – it’s an image of a weapon.

Wait, what?

I mean, this bit is nice. Rainbows are beautiful, representing the end of the storm, a moment of peace after what can be violent weather conditions. Martial imagery just seems at odds with this.

Or is it?

See, throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as an archer. This is linked to judgement, God riding out with his bow and arrows to bring justice to the world. This often visualises his arrows as lightning, such as in 2 Samuel, Psalms and Habakkuk. Add to that images of God’s voice thundering and there’s a clear metaphor going on – God’s judgement is likened to a storm. And, of course, the main place that judgement comes through a storm is during Noah’s flood.

So, if weather-related images of bows and arrows are symbols of God’s judgement, what’s going on with God’s covenant with Noah?

Could it be God laying down his weapons of judgement?

And, more than that, picture a rainbow compared to a bow. If the rainbow represents a weapon, it’s facing the wrong way, away from the people at which it’s meant to be aimed.

(It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that one major interpretation of Christian theology states that God saves humanity by taking judgement upon himself… It may be a little tenuous linking that with the rainbow, but it’s worth noting…)

So if Noah’s story is one of salvation in the midst of judgement, then God ‘s covenant with him represents that judgement being suspended, for humanity as a whole at least. And it falls within a wider story of redemption that runs throughout the Bible, which is awesome.

Though it means I’ll never again look at rainbows in the same way…

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