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Symbolism of Rainbows

In this week’s parasha our attention is focused on Noah and his family’s experience in the ark. The flood has subsided and the doors of the ark have opened. God has commanded Noah to exit the ark and to release the animals back into the world. (Genesis 8:15-19) God next declares that such a wholesale disaster will never be caused by God again. A covenant is established and God seals it by placing a rainbow in the sky: “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” (9:12 -13).

One of the cornerstones of Reconstructionist theology is the evolving nature of the meaning or value of Jewish practice and symbolism. This practice appears to date back to our earliest ancestors. Consider, for example, the meaning of the rainbow as a symbol in the ancient Near Eastern world. According to the esteemed biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, the rainbow in the ancient world was a fairly common “symbol of divine bellicosity and hostility” (JPS Torah Commentary, p. 63). Regardless of your position on authorship of the Bible, what we witness in parashat Noah is the remarkable transvaluing (evolving meaning or value) of a common symbol of belligerency and violence into a symbol of peace and reconciliation! (The warlike value of the word for rainbow (keshet) in Hebrew is retained in its other meaning as in bow and arrow).

The violent, warlike, symbolism of the rainbow undoubtedly arises from the timing of the appearance of the rainbow in the sky after violent storms. Yet, how a people, presumably the ancestors of Abraham, elicited another aspect of the meaning of the rainbow is a mystery. Perhaps they associated the life-renewing element of rain with the concepts of mercy and compassion and sustainability If so, it is not hard to see how believers in an all-powerful God might have embraced the rainbow as sign of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity. This is just one small example of the innovative, even revolutionary, nature of Torah.

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