In London, where I live, there are rainbows everywhere. Children’s drawings in shop and house windows, tied to trees, stuck to bus stops. During our initial lockdown, the rainbow became a symbol of gratitude for the health professionals battling Corona and so rainbows are now displayed up and down the land in appreciation for the heroism of those who care.
Some complain that the use of the rainbow is an unfair expropriation of the symbol of LGBTQ pride. The gay pride rainbow flag was devised by the artist, Gilbert Baker, in 1978. It first had 8 colours, but that was reduced to 6. It remains a powerful symbol of identity.
But the children’s drawings I have seen look nothing like the distinctive LGBTQ flag. I also don’t think that, as children of Noah, any of us can complain about the use of what is after all supposed to be a universal symbol. The Torah tells us that all humanity suffered the deluge, received Noah’s covenant, and benefit from God’s promise that he will never again destroy the earth or its inhabitants by flood (Genesis 9:11-16). God placed his “bow in the clouds” as a symbol of that promise, and none of us have a monopoly over it.
As a lawyer, I would like to think that God’s promise not to destroy the world by flood might extend to other forms of disaster, such as plague and the flood of misery it brings, but there has been some neat drafting here which leaves that as an open question. But we can hope, and that is what the rainbow seems to inspire – hope. I imagine Noah feeling just that standing on his battered ark marvelling at the rainbows’ colours dancing over the receding waters, pools, and falls, dreaming of a brave new world.
But within the Jewish sources, the rainbow’s meaning is given a surprising theological twist. Bereishit Rabbah 35 describes the rainbow as resembling God in some way. We are told not to read the word in Genesis 9:13 as “Kashti” (my bow) but as “Kishuti” (my likeness).
This conjures up a strange image of a face in the sky; the rainbow as downturned lips hanging over the earth in bright colours as if to say, “It’s been a bad old time, but cheer up…” But that is not what the midrash is getting at.
It is in fact providing linguistic support to a passage in Ezekiel’s famous acid-trip-like vision of the divine realms: “And the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28). On seeing this likeness, the prophet falls on his face, and hears God’s voice.
What aspect of God did Ezekiel see in the rainbow’s arch? This is just speculation, but I like to think that he saw the process by which oneness becomes multitude, how light’s singularity refracts through water (the symbol of wisdom) to create the spectrum which shows up the beauty of the observable universe, the process of creation. God as all and God as every thing. On this reading, Ezekiel did not just see in the rainbow a symbol of hope, gratitude, or inclusivity, but something altogether more profound, the idea of creation as a refraction of divine light. We might reconnect the rainbow to this vision.
And so, for the theologically minded, whenever there is a danger that individuals might be overlooked- that is, in times of war, famine, plague, or prejudice- the rainbow stands as a symbol of both our interconnectedness and individuation, the uniqueness of every soul and connection to the ultimate source. Each person matters, the totality matters because, in essence, one is a reflection of the other.