Saturday, June 11, 2005

Over the Rainbow

When we first moved to Minneapolis from Iowa in 1998, I soon noticed rainbow deocrations everywhere: rainbow bumper stickers, rainbow flags, rainbow windsocks, etc. I didn't know what it meant at the time, though it turns out that "by the end of the 1970s the rainbow flag's connection with gay pride became generally known in the United States." Designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker, it first flew in the San Fran Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.

In Baker's original conception, each color was to represent a value. (For example, hot pink stood for sex, red stood for life, orange for healing, etc.)

Now I don't know whether one of the factors in this original conception was the story in the Hebrew Bible about God graciously instituting the sign of the rainbow as a promise never to destroy the earth again. But whether it is or not, it remains the case that the gay community has taken over this symbol, and the original meaning has been obscured.

The situation was that God rescued Noah and his family, along with representative animals, from a catostrophic flood sent by God himself as punishment upon a wicked earth. When the waters subside and God has rescued his people through the judgement of the wicked, God says to Noah in Genesis 9:

9 "Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 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. 11 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."

12 And 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 cloud, 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."

It is interesting to observe that, to my knowledge, neither the Hebrew nor the Greek language has a word uniquely designated for "rainbow." Rather, "bow" is used metaphorically. It is the same word used to refer to the archer's bow--a powerful weapon used against one's enemies.

The covenants of God not only provide stipulations for human obedience or disobedience, but they also announce what will happen to God if he fails to keep his covenant with his people. Though I cannot prove it decisively, I would suggest that the reason God chose to make this particular covenant sign into a rainbow is that it pictures God, the divine warrior, hanging his bow in the sky. No longer is the bow pointed toward the earth. Rather, it is pointed toward God himself, ensuring that he will not break his covenant with creation.

Does this mean that God is no longer a God of judgment and wrath? If he is to remain a holy and just God, he cannot relinquish his perfect attributes. It simply means that God is patient and kind, delaying his day of wrath. "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 27:30). While God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45), Jesus cries out to his rebellious, ungrateful people: "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matt. 23:37).

The rainbow, then, is not a symbol that God will overlook everything that we do and accept us without changing us. Rather, it is a symbol of his kindness, his forbearance, and his patience. It is not a license to remain free of repentance. Rather, it is an invitation to turn from idols to serve the living God. As the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 2:4, Don't presume on the riches of God's kindness and forbearance and patience, ignorant of the fact that God's kindness is meant to lead us to repentance.

So the next time you see a rainbow--whether in the sky or on a flag--remember the kindness and patience of God. And pray that it would lead you--and our neighbors--to turn from sin to enjoy the pleasures at God's right hand.