Where Does the Bible Mention Rainbows and What Is Their Meaning?
After a storm, you may see a rainbow if you’re lucky. Traditional Irish folklore imagines a pot of gold where a rainbow meets earth—more good luck. Seeing a rainbow is indeed a blessing. Thunder and lightning frighten us, but after the storm may come a calming bow of brilliant colors in the sky. This beautiful, natural phenomenon has spiritual significance, supported by God’s Word. What does the rainbow mean in the Bible?
Where Does the Bible First Mention Rainbows?
The first reference to a rainbow in the Bible is when Noah and his brood spotted a rainbow in the sky after the great flood had ended, and they left the ark to enter dry land. The rainbow God displayed in the sky represented the promise, or covenant, that God would never again destroy the earth by a flood:
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 . . . 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.” (Genesis 9:8-11)
What Was the Covenant That God Made with Noah?
God made this covenant with Noah (who represented all future people) regarding His creation. The events of the book of Genesis “introduce us to how God initiates and makes covenants with His chosen people, pledging His love and faithfulness to them and calling them to promise theirs to Him.”
God makes seven or eight covenants with His children in the Bible, from the time of the Garden of Eden to Christ’s resurrection, the “new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24). A covenant is more than a promise. It is usually a formal agreement between two or more persons to do or not do something. It is the name of a statement with such a specific agreement in legal terms.
In the church, a covenant means members agree to act together in harmony with the precepts of the gospel. A covenant establishes a relationship between two parties, similar to a government document.
The Old Testament events leading up to the covenant with Noah are as follows:
- God explained how Noah’s righteousness spared him from the flood (Genesis 6:9-13, 7:1).
- God gave specific instructions for the ark project, which Noah followed (Genesis 6:14-21).
- God returned Noah and his crew to dry land on Mount Ararat (Genesis 8:1-5).
God’s covenant after the flood was sealed by the sign of a rainbow in the sky.
“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 see it and remember the everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 9:13-14,16)
How Was God’s Promise Fulfilled in Bible History?
Geologists have found evidence and theorized that the great flood described in Genesis occurred. Scientists have not reported evidence of another widespread flood after the formation of the continents and human settlement on land. Instead, two incidents described in Old Testament history are floods in reverse. God parted water to further His Hebrew people’s establishment of the Promised Land.
Most famously, God parted the Red Sea when the Hebrews were fleeing Egypt ahead of the Egyptian army. The Israelites made it safely across the sea, but the Egyptian troops drowned when the sea waters flowed back.
The Israelites rejoiced, with Moses’ sister Miriam beating a tambourine and leading in a song of joy on the other side of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:27-31; Exodus 15:20-21). God was faithful in sustaining the Israelites through deep water trouble.
Another reverse flood event was when God parted the Jordon River so that the Israelites could enter the Promised Land of Canaan after wandering in the desert for forty years.
“Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.” (Joshua 3:15-17)
God extended the provisions of his covenant with His chosen people—bodies of water parted to let them proceed safely on their journey.
The prophet Isaiah spoke for God when Isaiah prophesied, When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you (Isaiah 43:2).
Another prophecy of Isaiah specifically mentions God’s covenant with Noah not to destroy the earth by flood again:
“‘In overflowing anger, for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. “This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. . . but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:8-10)
What Other Bible Passages Talk about Rainbows?
The arc of colors in a rainbow—particularly the range from red, purple to blue—had religious significance for the early Hebrew people. God asked Moses to use the colors blue, purple, and scarlet in the curtains for His tabernacle, a portable temple for the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land (Exodus 26:1).
Blue, purple, and scarlet were decreed colors for the garments of Moses’ brother Aaron and the other first, high priests ordained by God (Exodus 28:1-5). These colors worn by priests and in a cloth on the ark of the covenant represented atonement, seeking a better relationship between God and people (NIV Study Bible, footnote for Exodus 25:17).
The prophet Ezekiel compares the brilliance of his vision of God’s glory to a rainbow in Ezekiel 1:28: "As the rainbow appears that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of His brightness all around.”
A rainbow is a pinnacle of God’s astounding creation. It shines in a dismal, rainy sky or a sky just beginning to reveal the sun. A rainbow reminds us of God’s faithfulness in stormy times.
At the end of the New Testament, in John’s prophetic book of Revelation, he describes the glory and power of God on his throne with these words: After these things I looked, and behold, a door opened in heaven . . . and a rainbow was around the throne” (Revelation 4:1,3).
The second mention of a rainbow in Revelation occurs when John describes a mighty angel: Then I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven, clothed with a cloud, and with a rainbow on his head (Revelation 10:1).
We can only imagine seeing the splendor of God and His angel. Rainbow imagery illustrates John’s stunning prophecy.
What Do Rainbows Mean in the Bible and Elsewhere?
From Genesis to Revelation, a rainbow is an important symbol of God’s presence and power. Seeing a rainbow’s beauty is awe-inspiring, in Bible times and now. Sighting a rainbow after a storm is—as it was to Noah—a metaphor for faith, for the enduring gifts of God’s grace and mercy.
In popular culture, a rainbow represents variety, life in all its possibilities. God made sure Noah collected two of every species on the ark, to promote a variety of creatures on earth. Given this, perhaps God missed the variety of humanity, with all of its shortcomings, after the flood. God welcomes our range of physical, spiritual, and intellectual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)—and our range of experiences leading us to God.
The song “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow,” a timeless tune from The Wizard of Oz, brings hope to a Kansas farm girl yearning for adventure and beauty. If she can climb beyond the rainbow, out of her mundane existence, she believes she will achieve her dreams.
Reverend Jesse Jackson formed the Rainbow Coalition during his run for the presidential primary. He promoted the idea that all people could have a voice in their government. The term “rainbow” has always addressed diversity.
When I lived in a college town, the Rainbow People roamed the central campus during the summer. They were a throwback to the culture of the late 1960s hippies, though they appeared on campus during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Rainbow People wore brightly colored, flowing clothing and didn’t appear to hold down jobs. Maybe they were all living on trust funds. Whatever, they were a free-spirited bunch celebrating their youth.
On the other end of the spectrum, rainbows are popular in the culture of little girls. Rainbow Pony continues to be a popular line of merchandise. In a kindergarten performance celebrating Martin Luther King’s Day, my daughter scampered across the stage with a rainbow painting on a poster board. She said her dream was for there to be “rainbows everywhere.” This is my favorite rainbow recollection, and it reminds me of God’s loving promise to Noah.
The rainbow continues to be a symbol of God’s faithfulness and mercy. As in the rainbow around the throne of Revelation 4:3, the rainbow symbolizes hope and trust in God. It represents the beautiful and awesome chance God continually gives us to start anew after a storm.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Jordan Mcdonald
Betty Dunn hopes her writing leads you to holding hands with God. A former high school English teacher, editor, and nonprofit agency writer, she now works on writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets and family. Check out her blog at Betty by Elizabeth Dunning and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com.