There is truly something magical about rainbows. Even understanding the basic science behind them, even being able to create one at will with a prism or the mist setting on a hose attachment does not diminish that magic. Smaller rainbows like those, or like ones created by waterfalls are lovely, but there is nothing quite like a giant, natural rainbow appearing in the distance. There are rainbows I remember even years later, one flying up and over the row of huge churches on 16th Street NW in DC, near Katherine and my apartment and another that appeared to end on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro as I approached the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
It is no surprise then, that so many cultures attach meaning to the rainbow. Perhaps most familiar to us is the Irish legend that leprechauns keep their gold at the end of the Rainbow. If you have watched the recent Thor movies, you might recall the Bifrost, the bridge between Thor’s home of Asgard and earth, which is rooted in Norse beliefs about rainbows. The Greeks developed similar beliefs, seeing the rainbow as the mode of transit of Iris, one of the messengers of the gods. The Japanese too, have stories of the rainbow as a bridge used by gods.
And, of course, we have our Hebrew text about the rainbow from today’s lectionary: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’”
The text does not use the word “rainbow.” Rainbow is an English compound word that does not directly exist in Hebrew. The Hebrew, as you just heard, just says “bow.” Using the same word that we use for a weapon. This is God’s hunting bow, or, more likely, God’s war bow.
Many cultures have traditions of voluntarily disarming, of showing and then visibly putting away weapons to demonstrate that one does not mean any harm. This is the promise that God is making in this passage of Genesis. God has just used the rain as a weapon, wiping out all life except for eight humans and a pair of each type of animal that could not swim. Presumably, the fish and ducks were fine. The rainbow then, is not just something pretty, but is a visible promise that the rains will stop, will not be used again as a weapon against all life on the earth.
It is notable though, what is not promised here. God does not promise that it will never again rain. God does not promise clear skies. God does not promise that the rain will always be light and gentle. God does not promise days free from clouds or wind or struggle. God promises only that those are temporary states.
There are times where this past year has felt like a protracted Lent, where it has felt like last year’s lent simply never ended. We have dutifully changed the paraments, changed the colors marking the church seasons on the fabric draped over the cross behind me and on the pulpit in front of me, but somehow, this past year has still so often felt like Lent, like a season of sacrifice, a season of, at times, forced introspection and reflection.
It is appropriate then, that as we begin Lent this year, we begin with the story of the Noahic covenant, of the promise of the rainbow. The promise that this too, shall pass. The promise that, after the rains, we have the rainbow, after Lent we have Easter, after the crucifixion we have the resurrection, the promise that God never allows death and destruction to have the final word.
Thanks be to God.