The afternoon passes in High Camp. We observe, lethargically, as the scattered clouds race past. One energetic system arrives overhead, threatens, and releases its moisture. It is not a heavy rain and is over nearly as soon as it begins. Afterwards, the sun reappears and peeks through the western sky.
One of the guys shouts, “Look, a rainbow!”
I grab my camera, pull on my boots, and scamper out. Others are ahead of me and are pointing. Sure enough, sandwiched between murky clouds is an arc of many colors: red, yellow, violet. One end appears rooted downslope and to our east. It rises high in the direction of Little Ararat and then disappears overhead.
Rainbows are fascinating. I ponder the reasons. Maybe it is the contrast of vivid color in a murky sky? Maybe it is the feeling of relief that comes after the drama of a storm? Could it be the science of the thing that is fascinating: all those tiny droplets of water, dancing in the air, bending light into its primary essence? Maybe it is the brevity and surprise of it all that draws our attention? Yes. For these reasons and more, rainbows are colorful, dramatic, ethereal, symbolic.
They say you must be in the right place at the right time to see a rainbow. It occurs to me that there is no finer place to witness this phenomenon than from the scarp of a mountain believed by many to be Mt. Ararat. After all, it is in this spot that the bow is invested with new meaning (please, it is not created for the first time!) according to the text of Genesis.
“And God said (to Noah), ‘This is the sign of the agreement that I am making between the two of us (as well as the creatures that are with you); it will hold true for future generations: I offer my bow in the clouds as a symbol of agreement between me and the earth. When your vision is obstructed by murkiness, but a bow shows itself, know that I am remembering our agreement. Flooding water will never again destroy all life. I will see the bow in this murkiness and remember this solid agreement between myself and all creatures on earth’” (Gen 9:12-16). (pardon my loose translation!)
The “bow” that appears three times in this brief text is the Hebrew term qeshet. Almost every other appearance of this word (and there are too many to count) describes the weapon of the archer. The warrior’s bow is a curved appliance, strung tight, and designed to transfer the tension of the bow limbs into projection power for an arrow. As a weapon, it is known from the earliest times. As a biblical symbol, it appears regularly as a metaphor for strength, and occasionally, judgement. Many examples demonstrate God breaking the bows of the mighty (no small feat!) and using the bow himself as a weapon.
The poem of Habakkuk 3 is a fine demonstration of the latter: “You (God) unsheathed your bow and called for arrows” (vs. 9). The idea persists still deeper in the poem: “Your arrows flew like light” (vs. 11), and “You pierced the head of his (the wicked one’s) warriors with his own arrows” (vs. 14). For Habakkuk, the bottom line comes by way of the initial prayer to the Divine bowman: “In wrath, remember mercy” (vs. 2).
I can’t help but think of this prayer when contemplating the bow in sky and the story of Noah.
It is only in this Genesis context (and in Ezek 1:28, that references the Noah narrative) that the warrior’s bow comes into English as a “rainbow.” The arcing shape undoubtedly prompted the Hebrew writer to think of the weapon.
How does this context affect a reading of Genesis 9? Scholars from Wellhausen to Von Rad to Cassuto saw it. The warrior’s bow is hung on the wall only when the battle is over. In the case of Noah and the Great Flood narrative, the resting bow signals God’s promise to not use this weapon this way again. The survivors see it suspended in the sky and are relieved that God sees it too.
As I stand on the mountain, I think about how twisted the symbol of the rainbow has become. It is not the rainbow of little girls, pretty ponies, or gay power. It is the warrior bow of God.