Now that’s a provocative headline for a Christian publication, no? Well it is absolutely, 100 percent true. God did not create rainbows!
I suspect that some of you —who have little tolerance for what smells to you like rotten theological liberalism— are ready to flip the page; perhaps mumbling to yourselves, “Um, what about that whole RAINBOW covenant thingy that God gave to Noah after the Flood, Josh?” Yes, I know. It didn’t happen.
Hold on! Before you get upset and move along, give me a second to explain. I promise you by the time you reach the end of this article, you’ll gladly agree with me.
But before I’m able to satisfy your curiosity let me orient us to the events that preceded Noah’s Flood.
You’ll recall that after the fall of Adam and Eve, when the land was cursed and humans were set outside of God’s sanctuary garden, human depravity boiled over and festered to such a great degree of wickedness and evil that the LORD finally had enough.
“…the LORD was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the LORD said, ‘I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people…‘” (Genesis 6:6-7 NLT)
God chose a deluge of water as his judgement against the world that he’d created —effectively collapsing Creation back upon itself. But not before extending grace toward Noah and his family by providing them an escape from his wrath in the sanctuary of a ship.
After the flood had completely destroyed that first creation and a new creation emerged out from beneath the waters, the LORD set Noah and his ship with all of its cargo on dry ground. And out from the ark came every living thing that still remained upon the earth. When Noah and his family left the ship and offered thanks to the LORD, the LORD made a covenant with Noah and his sons. He said,
“‘I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures. Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.’ Then God said to Noah, ‘Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth.’” (Genesis 9:11-17 NLT)
Some of you are thinking that I have my work cut out for me, aren’t you? It seems unquestionably clear from the passage that you just read that God absolutely and undeniably created rainbows as his covenant sign with Noah.
But I’m doubling down. God did no such thing.
In spite of what you might have previously been taught and contrary to how many bible translations read, God did not place a rainbow in the sky.
So what’s the solution?
There is no Hebrew word for rainbow. The word translated as rainbow in Genesis 9:13 is the same Hebrew word translated elsewhere as an archer’s bow. What’s the significance and why does it matter if we interpret that Hebrew word as rainbow or bow? It’s significant because it means that God did not just arbitrarily create a random phenomenon in nature as the beautiful multicolored sign of his covenant promise. He didn’t just throw a rainbow into the sky as a symbol of his peace and love toward mankind, he hung his bow upon the clouds as a sign of his pledge that he was retiring flooding rains from his arsenal of judgment.
The rain-bow then is ultimately a weapon of God’s wrath against rebel humanity and not a symbol of his peace. It only becomes a symbol of peace when we recognize that rain will never again be used to kill every living thing upon the earth. And a rain-bow by itself isn’t the sign of God’s promise that he’ll never flood the land again. The sign is found in what God’s bow is doing. It’s not doing anything. It’s just hanging there on the clouds doing nothing at all. And just as a warrior’s bow hangs motionless on his wall after he’s returned home from war, so too God’s bow with his quiver of rain hangs upon the clouds never to be used again.
But we must understand that God hasn’t retired judgement. He has only promised never to use flooding rains again as his method of judging the world. The world will be judged again.
Peter writes, “…the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 3:5–7 ESV)
God will judge the living and the dead according to everything that they have done just as he judged the world that existed before the Flood.
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil…but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good.” (Romans 2:6-10 ESV)
We must understand that God did not discriminate among the rebels that he destroyed with his bow and he will not discriminate among those whom he will destroy by fire.
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV)
God will judge every form of sinful rebellion. It won’t just be those who practice certain kinds of sin that we find personally offensive whom God will judge, but everyone who practices sin.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV)
That means God won’t limit his judgement toward philandering husbands who cheat on their wives but it will extend to everyone who gives their eyes and hearts to pornography.
He said something similar about murder. Have you ever harbored unjust anger toward anyone? Then, according to Jesus, you’re liable to the same judgement as someone who’s committed murder. Have you ever taken something that didn’t belong to you, lied on your taxes, trafficked in gossip? Then you’re a liar. Have you ever stepped on another person’s back to get something you wanted for yourself? Then you’re guilty of covetousness. Each of these things and so much more have earned all of us a summons before the courtroom of God’s judgement. And none of us will leave that hearing innocent of the charges against us.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
Today the rain-bow stands for us as the great reminder that Jesus is the better and greater Ark of our Salvation. The judgement of God against human rebellion that was directed at us has fallen upon God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the only human to ever live a life that was wholly pleasing and fully satisfying to God. And yet he bore the torrent of the Father’s wrath against sin by dying the death his people deserved. And all who are found in Jesus, they will escape the flooding fire of God’s judgement. If you’re practicing sin —no matter how insignificant you think that sin is— you have no hope of escaping God’s wrath. There is no satisfaction of God’s anger against your rebellion. But if you’re willing to turn to God and away from your sin —no matter how soiled you think you may be— you have the promise of Jesus that he will shelter you from the storm of God’s wrath against your sin.
Like the rain-bow the cross was God’s chosen instrument of vengeance against human rebellion. Jesus, though he was innocent of sin, received upon himself the penalty for our sins as though he were to one who was guilty of committing them all. And the promise of the gospel isn’t simply that a person can have the penalty of their sins removed by having them punished in Christ. The good news of Jesus is that anyone who’s trusting in the promises of God —who turn from their rebellion against him— can receive credit for the righteous life of Jesus, as though it were they who’d lived his perfect life. Sins aren’t just removed. Righteousness is given. And it’s on account of this exchange that the people of God get to experience the abundant life that only Jesus deserved.
The great message of the rain-bow and the cross is that God shows no partiality toward those who commit sin. He thoroughly and impartially judges sin —regardless of the transgressions committed. But he also liberally and impartially awards forgiveness and blessings to all those who’ll turn from their sin and place their whole hope in Jesus’ perfect life —regardless of the transgressions they’ve committed.
“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved…” (John 10:9 ESV)
So I pulled a fast one on you by playing around with the etymology of the word rainbow, didn’t I? Of course God created —what we today call— rainbows. But something significant happens when we place that hyphen between the word rain and the word bow. It opens up the story for us in a way that was previously veiled by our English translations. The story of God’s retired rain-bow reminds us that the LORD keeps his promises. Namely, the promise that he will never again judge the world with flooding rains. And the greater promise of the cross, that he will never-ever judge those whose lives are hidden in Christ according to their sins. They’ll not be judged by their sins, they’ll be judged by his righteousness.
Remember that next time you see God’s bow hanging in the clouds.