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What Is the Meaning of the Rainbow in the Bible?

  • Robert Hampshire Christianity.com Contributing Writer
  • 2020 9 Sep
Rainbow over a field

Most of my days are filled with mundane events and scenarios. Sometimes something noteworthy takes place, but normally I am seeing and doing what I have seen and done hundreds, if not thousands of times. However, every now and then something extraordinary takes place, prompting me to stand still and be in awe.

One example of this kind of remarkable event would be the appearance of a rainbow in the sky. I do not think I have ever witnessed the appearance of a rainbow where someone did not point up to the sky and say, “Look, a rainbow!” And typically, the brighter and more colorful the rainbow is, the louder people, including myself, cheer over it.

The World's View of the Rainbow

As beautiful and unique as a rainbow is, there is a simple, non-miraculous explanation for this phenomenon. Scientists have known for a long time that rainbows appear when raindrops act as “tiny prisms.”

White light from the sun shines on one side of a water droplet, gets reflected off the other side of the droplet, and then exits out to the other side of the sky as a circular bow or arc of color that is refracted or broken up into the color spectrum.

Rainbows contain a continuum of around 1 million colors that are indistinguishable with the human eye. Instead, we can only really see seven color hues: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

In fact, a rainbow is not much more than an “optical illusion” that only appears when a viewer is looking from just the right angle relative to the light source.

Nevertheless, the beauty and mystical appearance of the rainbow has caused it to be part of different myths among many cultures around the world. For example, the Norse saw it as a Bifrost “bridge” for gods to cross from earth to their home called Asgard.

Similarly, ancient Japanese believed that rainbows allowed their deceased ancestors to come back to earth, and the Navajo believed that it was the path for holy spirits. Even today, there is an old Irish legend commonly told (often jokingly) that there is a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow guarded by a tricky leprechaun.

Because the devil is the “father of lies” (John 8:44), all of the myths about rainbows are mistruths that distract us from discovering the true symbolic meaning behind it.

As a matter of fact, one of the farthest-reaching (yet subtle) distractions in our contemporary culture happened in 1978 when an artist hijacked the rainbow to design a flag to represent the LGBT community and celebrate a lifestyle that is sinful, unnatural, and even destructive. For more on that topic, see this article.

The True Meaning of the Rainbow

So, what is the true meaning of the rainbow? To answer that question, we must look beyond the children’s coloring books and really weird movies to the Bible — the only truly infallible, inspired, and authoritative source of truth that we have.

The rainbow first appears in Scripture toward the end of the story of the worldwide flood in Genesis 6-9. Because of the continual evil and wickedness of mankind (Genesis 6:5-12), God decided to cause rain to fall for 40 days and nights and flood the entire earth — killing everyone and everything except for a man named Noah and his family and a bunch of animals that were kept safe inside of a wooden ark.

After several months of interesting events, God’s judgment was “restrained” and the rain stopped (Genesis 8:2), resulting in a rainbow that appeared in the sky.

Whether this was the first appearance of a rainbow in human history (because it had not rained yet as Genesis 2:5 seems to say) or it was just God repurposing the phenomenon that already existed (as Ken Ham explains), the Bible is very clear about what the rainbow symbolizes.

After the floodwaters receded and Noah could get out of the boat onto dry land, he built an altar and offered a burnt offering to God. In response, God declared this promise to Noah and his family:

“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth… 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 cloud, 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” (Genesis 9:8-16, ESV).

So, considering this passage, God attached special meaning to the rainbow so that every time we see it, we may be reminded of God’s covenant to never destroy everyone and everything on the earth again with a flood.

Of course, there are quite a few other details that we might notice from this story, such as God’s power over the elements as well as the constancy of seasons, earth rotations, and temperature changes on earth (Genesis 8:22).

As fantastical as it may seem, this world-wide flood event really happened. And while it is certainly not a myth or even an allegorical story, there are still lessons that we should learn for our lives today.

It is intriguing that so many myths explain the rainbow as some sort of supernatural “bridge” (as we noted above), because the most important theme that the rainbow illustrates for us is God’s gracious and grand purpose of redemption (especially in light of his justness and holy judgment) to not only spare Noah and his family but also to give humanity (yet another) chance to start again.

This was good news to Noah because, despite the righteousness of Noah who (in a way) was a new “prototype” for humanity, mankind’s heart was still “evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).

In fact, although Noah built an altar to worship God immediately getting off the boat, it was not too long until his drunkenness resulted in new curses on some of his descendants (Genesis 9).

The Rainbow Reminds Us of the Gospel

And it is great news for us as well because this story clearly and beautifully points us to the time when God sent his own Son, Jesus, to die on a cross and then rise again to give humanity an amazing opportunity to escape judgment by being “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3; 1 Peter 3:20-22; 2 Peter 2:9).

And because of the gospel, we can respond to God’s grace with faithful surrender and be saved. As Paul laid out for us:

...if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved (Romans 10:9-10, ESV).

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/grafxart8888


Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, and most recently as the Lead Pastor and Planter of Village Church in Churchville, Virginia. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the Gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.




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