Parshat Noah: The semi-symbolism of the rainbow

"I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13)

Birds (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
‘Of the fowl after their kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive’ (Noah; Genesis 6:20)The rainbow is the symbol of the very first covenant entered into by God. It is the sign of God’s covenant with the earth and with all of humanity. Noah, after all, was the second Adam, from whom all of humanity would now emerge. And God’s covenant is His guarantee “that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
What is the symbolic significance of this rainbow? How does this particular object in the sky – which apparently existed before God entered into the covenant and was now to become an expression of God’s new agreement with “all flesh that is on the earth,” express this Divine covenant? The Ramban (Nahmanides, 1194-1270) suggests that the rainbow in the sky is an inverted bow.
Ancient warfare was fought with bows and arrows; when one side was ready to surrender, they would lift up an inverted bow, much as the white flag is a symbol of surrender today. The Ramban explains that the inverted bow in the skies is God’s statement that He will never again send a flood or any other scourge from the heavens in order to destroy the flesh of the earth.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) provides what I believe is an even more profound symbolism.
He explains that when one looks at a rainbow, one sees seven magnificent hues or colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. But there are not really those seven colors within the rainbow itself. When the rays of the sun touch the rain clouds – which are white – the refracted light which emanates from the rays appear to be these seven different glorious colors; in truth, however, the color is the white of the cloud and what we see are the virtual colors of the refracted light.
This phenomenon is a metaphor for the human race. People appear in many different colors: white, yellow, red, brown and black. However, if we could look metaphysically within the human being, every one of us has the exact same color: the color of the Divine Image which informs and inspirits each and every one of us.
In order to truly understand the symbolism, we must realize that the rainbow is at best a half-symbol; the complete symbol would be a whole circle, comprising two halves together. Rabbi Hirsch would maintain that God chooses this half-symbol because He can only guarantee that He will not destroy the world; He cannot guarantee that the world will not destroy itself.
Hence, immediately before God presents the symbol of the rainbow, God permits human beings to eat animal flesh, but stipulates very clear limitations: “You must not however eat the flesh or the blood of a living animal. You may not take your own life... or the life of any other human being. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; this is because God made man in His own image” (Genesis 9:4-6).
I have previously explained that a covenant is a two-way street, an agreement with the Divine which obligates the people as well as the Divine. Such was the covenant with Abraham “Between the Pieces” (Genesis 15) and so was the covenant at Sinai. Here too God obligates Himself not to destroy the world, but He also obligates humanity not to destroy itself.
Many of our traditional Jewish commentaries link these three laws to the Seven Noahide Laws of universal morality to which God obligates Noah and all human beings.
Tragically, humanity does not live up to these Seven Laws. The 10 generations between Noah and Abraham proved to be disastrous for human history, with the debauchery of Sodom and Gomorrah setting the stage for human conduct. The Almighty (as it were) takes a new turn. He decides that he must deal with one specific nation – or rather one individual who will become a specific nation – rather than with all of humanity at once. He will deal with Abraham, who has already discovered God and His compassionate righteousness and moral justice on his own (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 1).
He will build Abraham into a strong nation which will become “a blessing to all the families of the earth,” “a sacred nation and a kingdom of priests/teachers to all of humanity” (Genesis 12:3, Exodus 19:6, Sforno ad loc).
This is our Divine charge which will only be realized through a long historical process of transmitting our narrative from generation to generation. The true meaning of Zionism is the creation of the nation-state of Israel, which will serve as a beacon of peace, lighting the pathway to God for all the nations of the world.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.