Was Noah's Rainbow the First Rainbow?

@keiths, that one surprises me. Most of the LCMS’s I’ve known understand that being a sign doesn’t require that something appear for the very first time. In fact, lots of conservatives and Young Earth Creationists I’ve known would say that rainbows had always existed (due to the laws of physics) but that the rainbow became associated with the Noahic Covenant after God imbued it with special significance as a covenant sign forever after.

That custom was common in the Ancient Near East: taking some common object or phenomenon and saying, “From now on, whenever you see X, it will remind you of the covenant established between us on this day.”

Ken Ham at Answers in Genesis often makes this point.

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We took the Bible’s language quite seriously in my congregation, and the text of Genesis is clear that the rainbow was actually placed in the sky, after the Flood, to remind God not to wipe everyone out again. It wasn’t merely a change in the significance of a pre-existing phenomenon:

12 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: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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. 16 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.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 6:12-17, NRSV

The text is telling us not only that God placed the bow in the clouds at that time; it’s telling us that he did it as a mnemonic device! It’s the divine equivalent of tying a string around one’s finger. :slight_smile:


Where does it say this was the first rainbow placed in the sky? What is the Hebrew word for “placed” and what does it mean?

Quite so. Don’t people remember that there was bread and wine before the Lord made them representative of his body and blood?

The more interesting ponder-point is whether there were rainbows before there were creatures with eyes. “There is no such thing as an unobserved rainbow,” (Eddington).

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Yes. There was no “merely” about it.

Also, this is yet another example of God using a natural process for his purposes. (For example, the fact that rain is a natural process does not contradict the idea that God sends rain to water the land. Job 5:10.)

The laws of physics (and the natural processes arising from them) are entirely compatible with God “sending.”

I am not sure how one can take the text “seriously” and not bother to pick up a Strong’s Concordance and notice that the word used for “Rainbow” there was actually the word used for a weapon of war. It is not translated as “rainbow” anywhere but here.

The token of the covenant indicates that He has hung up His bow. He is not at war with the human race, though we may be so wicked as to still be at war with Him. He gives His word that He will act going forward in just the way He acted with Noah- to find a way to deliver at least a remnant of creation. His intentions are not new and neither is the rainbow, what is new is that He declares it as a token of His good intentions toward creation.

I don’t think many of us here will feel obligated to defend the position that the church of your boyhood took, but some of us will defend what the text actually says. And so far there seems to be a difference. There is a difference between having a high view of scripture and getting what it is saying right. The pharisees had a high view of scripture, but they still didn’t understand it. Not to say that’s what your church was growing up. Normal decent people can have the same sort of misunderstandings.

There is also the question of what it means to “wipe everyone out”. Though I am not sure if anyone here agrees with how I get there in the scriptures, many of us here do not believe the flood wiped out all the human race. It was not aimed at the population outside the garden, but the line of Messiah which had gone bad. Much of the confusion in the text is because readers don’t distinguish between the descendants of Adam, the population outside the garden, and what it would mean for the earth if the line of Messiah was wiped out.

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Well said. And this is one of those fortunate instances in the ancient text when the semantic domains for both the Hebrew word and the English equivalent are sufficiently similar to make this rainbow versus bow weapon easy to see even in translation. A rainbow has the same curved shape as an archer’s bow—and thus the tendency to use the same word in many cultures and languages.

The idea that the rainbow had somehow never ever appeared in the sky before this covenant event is one of those fascinating “extremes” of early Young Earth Creationist fundamentalism which is far less common today (and YEC ministries like Answers in Genesis now strongly reject that extreme.) I too remember hearing “this was the first time a rainbow appeared in the sky because there was a fundamental change in atmospheric conditions after the flood because the firmament above had lost its store of water.”—though I can’t recall if I first heard that from John Whitcomb Jr. (of The Genesis Flood fame) or perhaps from Duane Gish.


Resources like Strong’s can be extremely valuable. However, in the wrong hands, they can confuse as much as they enlighten. That seems to have happened here.

The fact that the Hebrew word in question was used to refer to the bow as a weapon does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that the same word was not used to refer to rainbows. This sort of thing happens all the time in languages (including in English).

Anyone who takes the words of the text seriously, rather than fighting against them, will see that the author of Genesis is clearly talking about a rainbow:

13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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. 16 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.”

Genesis 9:13-16, NRSV

And that, of course, is why so many translations render the word in English as “rainbow”.

The difference, of course is that the Gospels don’t claim that Jesus invented bread and wine for the purposes of the Eucharist. By contrast, Genesis does say that God placed the rainbow in the sky to remind himself not to wipe everyone out again.

You still haven’t answered my question.

Yes, it’s so scientifically ridiculous that even Answers in Genesis can’t abide it.

But keep in mind that all of us today – including the AiG folks – have an advantage that the author of Genesis lacked: modern scientific knowledge.

The Flood account, like Genesis as a whole, is riddled with things that look goofy to modern eyes. That makes perfect sense from the atheist perspective. Genesis was written by naive humans, a long time ago. No surprise that they got so much wrong.

What’s mystifying is that there are still people, in the 21st century, claiming that Genesis is the inspired word of God.


If rainbows were already occurring, why did God think it necessary to “set his bow in the clouds”? Didn’t he understand that rainbows were already happening?

Which brings up the larger issue of God as Divine Doofus. He comes off rather poorly in the Flood account, don’t you think?

Ah, but the same verb is used in Deut 1:8, where God “sets the land” before the Israelites to possess. I don’t think he materialised it from primordial mist! And he even set the prophet Ezekiel (as a sign) before Israel (12:6) - though Ezekiel was already a man.

The clue is in the etymology, for the verb is nathan, meaning “give”, as I know because it is the half of my forename I don’t use. It’s therefore more about use than origin.

A lot of them are here on this forum @keiths. You don’t have to agree. There still might be value in understanding why they trust Genesis, and how they read it.

Another intiguing question is why people who leave a faith for personal reasons pretty soon start assuming that those reasons should compel everyone in the world to the same conclusion. I noticed the same with Steve Mathieson over at BioLogos: a Theistic Evolution leader until he lost his faith - then a scoffer at anybody stupid enough ever to believe.

In my case, never having been brought up in doctrinaire literalism, I could explore the riches of Genesis when I came to faith, instead of reacting against it with the kind or reverse-literalism you show here. Not only are the billions of believers all idiots - the ancient authors were too. But they weren’t.

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Sure. And as you know from observing me at The Skeptical Zone, I enjoy discussing this stuff with believers.

But I truly am mystified by believers’ conviction – often quite fervent – that Genesis is the inspired word of God. Particularly when they hold to that belief even after the many flaws are pointed out to them.

If Genesis is the word of God, why so many flaws? If God is strong and wise and good, why does he come across as a Divine Doofus in the Genesis account?

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Perhaps, but you are going to find on average a higher level of coherence among the Christians here. @vjtorley is great, but he is at better than average at SZ.

I don’t see him that way in Genesis. It makes a lot more sense to me. He comes of as just and merciful and wise, especially in the context of a genealogical Adam. Regardless, I don’t believe Genesis because it’s a sensible story, but because I encountered Jesus. I trust the Bible because of Jesus.

I’ve been studying Genesis more deeply than most people except the real scholars. I don’t see these flaws you are talking about. If they are like this discourse on rainbows, it sounds like you are just trying to read errors into the text. I suppose you can do that if you want, but why should we? And why would twisting it that way help you understand anything about it?

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What you’re overlooking is that I went through a long process of deconversion. I didn’t shed my religious beliefs in one fell swoop.

So as much as you’d like to think that it was an all or nothing decision for me – either accept a literal interpretation of Genesis or reject it entirely – that’s simply false. I abandoned my literalism long before I abandoned my Lutheranism, then my Christianity, and then my theism.

What I found was that even under a variety of non-literalistic interpretations, Genesis still doesn’t look anything like the word of God.

Yeah, but you probably didn’t know that a literalistic reading works just fine.

You are a smart guy @keiths, but you don’t know everything. Things have changed a lot in our understanding of how evolutionary science presses on Genesis. It is hard to see any conflicts with even a YEC-ist reading. Have you read this yet?