The Rainbow – A Token of the Covenant

Noah's Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. Noah builds an altar to the Lord after being delivered from the Flood; God sends the rainbow as a sign of his covenant (Genesis 8-9). (click for larger view)

Noah's Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. (click image for larger view)

This morning I was listening to the ABC News report on the incoming hurricane Ike, which is heading straight towards the Galveston/Houston area of Texas, and the forecast of widespread destruction that it is provoking.  The news anchor was reporting from Galveston Island, Texas, where the brunt of the storm is said to be bearing down quickly.  The reporter ended his news clip by saying that there was a rainbow directly over Galveston Island.

It is destructive times like these that cause us to reflect on God, and His place in our world.  It seems like cruel irony that the rainbow was placed as a sign of the covenant that God made with man that He would not flood the earth again.  But then again, that was surely a deliberate decision, that each time we witness these horrific natural events like hurricanes we remember God is still there, and that He knows our trials and tribulations (cf. Hel. 12:3).  Yes, even “if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).  Events like these turn us back to God, and remind us to worship Him who is the Creator of heaven and earth.  It is only by obeying God’s commandments and enduring trying times such as these that we can “triumph over all [our] foes” (D&C 121:7–8): 

8 ¶ And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,
9 And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;
10 And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.
11 And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13 I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:
15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.
17 And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth. (Gen. 9:8–17)

This is a very insightful passage of scripture.  What we have here is a covenant pattern, with ritual enactments which bind the covenant.  God establishes a covenant with man, with a promise, and signs that covenant with a physical/visual token (Hebrew ‘owth [H226], also means sign, distinguishing mark, or ensign; perhaps related to our English word oath) by the setting of the rainbow in the sky in remembrance of that covenant.  Both God and man could look upon that token, the rainbow, and remember the covenant that they had made (v. 16).  It is also interesting that Ezekiel uses the rainbow to describe the glory and presence of the Lord (Ezek. 1:28).

Was it only a one-way covenant?  Absolutely not.  There is no such thing; covenants are by definition two-way agreements, which is clear in this scripture (see verses 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17).  The above passage comes directly after Noah and his family had left the ark and Noah built up an altar and offered burnt sacrifices upon it (Gen. 8:20).  Noah was proclaiming his allegiance to God, and his remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son, and that he would follow God’s commandments by offering sacrifices and burnt offerings (cf. Moses 5:6–8).  These sacrifices were the sign or token of Noah’s promise before God.  Only after Noah offers his sacrifice does God make several reciprocal promises to Noah and his family, followed by God’s token of the covenant in the rainbow:

21 And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.
22 While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (Gen. 8:21–22)
1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
4 But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.
5 And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.
6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
7 And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein. (Gen. 9:1–7)

You’ll notice that the blessings and stipulations of the covenant include promised land, posterity, and health, the same as the covenant that God made later with Abraham (Abr. 2:6–11), Isaac (Gen. 26: 1–4, 24), and Jacob (Gen. 28; Gen. 35: 9–13; Gen. 48: 3–4).  You’ll also notice that these blessings are a reversal of the consequences of the Fall of Adam and Eve.  For instance, Adam and Eve were told that the ground would be cursed for their sake (Gen. 3:17).  Here Noah is told that the ground is no more cursed (Gen. 8:21).  The commandment and blessing to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth is the same command Adam and Eve received before the Fall (Gen. 1:28).

A modern prophet in this dispensation has reemphasized the two-way nature of the covenant that God made with Noah, and the sign and token of the rainbow. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:

I have asked of the Lord concerning His coming; and while asking the Lord, He gave a sign and said, “In the days of Noah I set a bow in the heavens as a sign and token that in any year that the bow should be seen the Lord would not come; but there should be seed time and harvest during that year: but whenever you see the bow withdrawn, it shall be a token that there shall be famine, pestilence, and great distress among the nations, and that the coming of the Messiah is not far distant.”

But I will take the responsibility upon myself to prophesy in the name of the Lord, that Christ will not come this year, as Father Miller has prophesied, for we have seen the bow… (HC 6:254; March 10, 1844)

The Lord deals with this people as a tender parent with a child, communicating light and intelligence and the knowledge of his ways as they can bear it. The inhabitants of the earth are asleep: they know not the day of their visitation. The Lord hath set the bow in the cloud for a sign that while it shall be seen, seed time and harvest, summer and winter shall not fail; but when it shall disappear, woe to that generation, for behold the end cometh quickly. (HC 5:402; May 21, 1843)

If man does not remember God, and his oblations to Him, then the covenant will be broken.  Does God make such covenants with man today?  I testify that He does, and only in His temple, the house of the Lord.

The singer/songwriter Kirby once wrote a song entitled “Hurricane Rainbow”:

A rainbow bent down
And touched that hurricane hole
Her multi-colored majesty
Made me again – remember when
That big wind she blew
And turned our world to gray
And if it weren’t for you
I may not be – here today

A furious wind howls
And the angry waves pound
But we’re alright – since we saw
A rainbow come down

Way up in the states they say
This whole island got blown away
Oh how dem newsboys love dat stuff
Rooftops fly – cows sail by
Well sure we lost a few rooftops
Boats were ravaged on the rocks
But that lunatic was way too slow
To blow away – this rainbow

Oh a furious wind howls
And the angry waves pound
But we’re alright – since we saw
A rainbow come down

Yes we’re alright – since we saw
A rainbow come down

14 Comments

  1. Mark Greene
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Enoch was also give the token of the rainbow. “And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant, which I made unto thy father Enoch: that when men men should keep all my commandments, Zion should come again on the earth, the city of Enoch” (JST Genesis 9:21). This promise gives a particular meaning to the token of the rainbow. For as the full rainbow rises from the earth and then returns to the earth in the distance, so Enoch and his Zion people were taken form the earth and will return to the earth in the future. “And the Lord said unto Enoch: Then shalt thou and all they city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other . (Moses 7:63) A choice moment in the temple celestial room is to have a beam of light penetrate an upper window and diffract in the crystals of the chandelier, filling the room with miniature rainbows.

  2. Posted September 12, 2008 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Excellent insights Mark. The Enoch JST is particularly interesting, since it was before Noah and before the flood. These same covenants go back to Adam, but have been reiterated with each of the prophets down the line. It is an everlasting covenant.

    Nahmanides gave an interesting commentary on the rainbow – “(God) has not made the rainbow with its feet bent upward because it might have appeared that arrows were being shot from heaven… It is indeed the way of warriors to invert the instruments of war which they hold in their hands when calling for peace” (Nachmanides 9:13).

    This kind of peace that God calls for reminds us of the definition of Zion – “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).

    The image you recall of the chandelier of the celestial room refracting the light into rainbows around the room is beautiful.

  3. Reed Russell
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . it is surely significant that the whole color spectrum, every vivid color of the rainbow, harmonizes in white light which, in turn, harmonizes in Christ.”

    –Truman Madsen

  4. Posted September 12, 2008 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m hunkering down in the Texas Gulf Coast. I’ve never been more grateful for the council to have food, water, etc. in our homes. As precarious as our situation is here, I feel no fear b/c of the preparations we have made — all thanks to the Gospel.

  5. Posted September 12, 2008 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Bryce, I had always considered the Noahic Covenant to be an example of a one-way covenant (except in a spiritualized, metaphorical sense, wherein the constructing and entering of the arc represents the outward manifestation of accepting God’s salvation and deliverance). But I see that, as you point out, the sacrifices offered by Noah do clearly indicate recognized covenant ritual on his part.

    Thanks for enlightening me.

  6. Posted September 15, 2008 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    This is a beautifully written piece.!
    Thank you for including the HC quotes. I actually had never connected that a sign of the second coming will be when the rainbow is actually taken from the earth. I have been pondering that and it would mean of course that some cataclysmic event must take place globally to prevent sunlight from penetrating the atmosphere – and/or a lack of any moisture. This has taken place before in concentrated areas of the earth – such as when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted, but not globally. A couple of years ago I was studying the dust-bowl storms of the 30s (research for a “Grapes of Wrath” performance). When the storms were at their peak the sky was actually nearly as dark as night during the day. There was no rain or moisture anywhere. A diary entry I read actually said “no rainbows now”. It was so poignant – almost a declaration of “no more hope” – but also an interesting scientific outcome of that earth system crises. Just a thought, but I assume at “the end” the earth is headed for experiencing some sort of global Dust Bowl – possibly ash, or nuclear fall-out? (not meaning to sound dooms-day, just observational).

  7. Posted September 15, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for all your comments. I think it almost certain that the earth will experience cataclysmic events on a global scale before all is said and done.

  8. Posted October 13, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I came upon this page while doing research. I was considering this very covenant and wondering if rainbows would be literally taken from the earth by God or if instead perhaps the covenant sign would be destroyed by us figuratively.
    The Sign of the Rainbow is a covenant promise from God that He would withhold His destruction. Our side of the covenant is to remember Him. I believe that includes remembering the sign of the rainbow. If you were to see a rainbow back in the 1960’s or even as late as the 1970’s, you would have recognized it for what it was meant to be, which is as a sign of God’s covenant. Back then I’m sure that if you were asked to say what it is that the rainbow symbolized, most people would likely respond that the rainbow symbolized God’s promise to us, or his love for us, or something similar.
    Today the rainbow is no longer seen as a covenant from God. Ask 1,000 people on the street to tell you what the rainbow symbolizes and their response would be almost unanimously that it symbolizes homosexuality.
    Man has allowed the symbol of God’s promise, or the Sign of the Rainbow, to be destroyed. Even though God has not withdrawn the rainbow, its sign HAS disappeared from the hearts of man. Woe unto our generation if that is the case, for the end cometh quickly.
    This is just an idea I have been tossing around in my head for a few months and just recently decided to go look up the old statements made by Joseph Smith, where I stumbled upon your page. I think it of particular significance that you mentioned Gen 9:7 as part of man’s end of the covenant which is to multiply. That would be another way for homosexuality (the new sign of the rainbow) to shun the covenant.
    I’m putting notes together, tell me what you guys think about this idea.

  9. Posted October 15, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Sebourn, your comment is very thought-provoking. Since we know a sign of the second coming will be when the rainbow is taken from the earth, I was thinking the interpretation of that in a literal “global catastrophe” sense – per my prior comment. However, your analysis leads us to reason that the sign of the rainbow is a sacred covenant both as a literal sign and a spiritual symbol. Per your observation, it has already been violated and essentially taken from the earth. Prophesy fulfilled.

  10. Posted January 29, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I wonder, what conditions must exist in atmosphere for the rainbow to never be shown? Could the “rainbow” was are familiar with actually be the full bow, rarely seen in the sky, not the halfbow we are used to seeing?

    If all it takes to prevent the pestilence of flies is to run my sprayer on the hose, I’m down! :-)

  11. Ferreira
    Posted May 29, 2009 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    It is interesting to note that the image of light refracted through the rain drop is actually a full circle. We usually see rainbows as an arch intersecting the ground because of the angle of the sun relative to the refracting rain drop and our eyes…not because the full circle isn’t refracted but that it is interrupted from view.

    The full circle of a rainbow may symbolize both eternity [one eternal round] and the binding aspect of a covenant as a knot which binds two items together. “…for the puropse of the oath is to bind—the Egyptian word for oath…is simply ankh, originally a ‘knot’” (Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 201). The ankh symbol is “a knot in a sash, with ends hanging down” (Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 252) as perhaps a sash tied around one’s waist with a bow.

    In the rain-bow’s complete circle is the symbol of binding and covenant.

    Ferreira

  12. Ferreira
    Posted May 29, 2009 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    The rainbow as a token of covenant also appears to unite the 4 elements of creation as a reference to the covenant-making Creator: fire (light of the sun); water, earth (often intersected by the bow), and air.

    …just a thought.

  13. Jennifer
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, the “gay” rainbow has six colors…a true rainbow has seven. 6 is numerically a sign of deception, and 7 a symbol of spiritual perfection or wholeness. The “missing” color is violet, which is a mixture of three colors: red, blue, and white. Symbolically speaking, it would be “natural man” + “priesthood” + God = perfection.

    The 6-colored rainbow leaves this last color out, just as they leave out the priesthood/God combination.

  14. Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Jennifer, I consulted the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, regarding the colors of the LGBT flag. It says that violet is currently part of the flag:

    Originally created with eight colors, pink and turquoise were removed for production purposes and as of 2008, it consists of six colored stripes, which should always be displayed with red on top or to left. Aside from the obvious symbolism of a mixed LGBT community, the colors were designed to symbolize: red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), blue (harmony), and purple/violet (spirit). The removed colors stood for sex (pink) and art/magic (turquoise). It is most commonly flown with the red stripe on top, as the colors appear in a natural rainbow.

    But regardless of whether “white” is to be considered a color, a large portion of the LGBT community is religious and spiritually inclined. Note that the purple/violet of the LGBT rainbow flag was designated as symbolizing “spirit.”

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