As simple and "routine" as rainbows may seem to us after a rainstorm, there is something almost magical about seeing colors forming an arc in the middle of the air. Of course, science has fully explained this phenomenon. In reality, rainbows are not magic but are the result of the sun's light reflecting off of droplets of moisture in the atmosphere. The arc of course is the result of the sun's positioning in the sky v. the angle of the observer (usually a 40-42 degree angle), thus creating the visible arc.
But what did people of antiquity think of rainbows? How did they explain the "magical" colors appearing before them after a rainstorm?
Of course, the most famous tale of rainbows in the ancient world comes to us from the Book of Genesis. In chapter 9, we read of God's promise to Noah and how he vows to never again destroy the world with a global flood:
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.Of course I recognize that much of how one views this story depends on how you view the Bible. If you esteem the "Good Book" as literal truth, then the rainbow carries an extremely special significance. Pseudo-scientist Ken Ham, advocate of creation science and founder of the extremely controversial group "Answers in Genesis" and the "Creation Museum" states the following with respect to rainbows:
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.
The next time you see a rainbow, remember that God judges sin. But He is also merciful, and He made a covenant of grace with Noah and the animals—He will never again judge with a worldwide FloodBut Christians are far from the only religious group to find a special providential purpose for rainbows. In Greek mythology Iris, Goddess of sea and sky (and who is the personification of the rainbow) is commanded by Zeus to serve as the link between the Gods and humanity. As a result, the rainbow serves as a bridge between heaven and earth. The ancient Chinese and Hindu cultures believed that the rainbow was a slit in the sky, which divided humanity from the Gods. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the rainbow is the jewelry of the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, who holds it into the sky after the rain as a promise that she will never again kill humanity with a flood. And, of course, no ancient rainbow tale would be complete without everyone's favorite: the leprechaun's pot of gold!
The rainbow even has some important symbolism in more modern times. In 1950 The World Fellowship of Buddhists adopted a rainbow flag as a symbol of peace. In 1921 the International Co-operative Alliance adopted a rainbow flag as a symbol of "unity in diversity." Each color of the rainbow came to stand for a specific goal for the organization and the flag is still largely accepted today. And in recent decades, the rainbow has been adopted by both the peace movement of the 1960s and the LGBT movement of today.
So how do I see the rainbow? Perhaps I should simply see it as Sir Isaac Newton did: a light prism reflecting off of water. And though on the surface, the rainbow can be completely understood through scientific study, I believe (as I believe with all nature) that there is a deeper connection to the divine. As the 18th century scientist/theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg stated when writing about rainbows:
It may be wondered that the bow in the cloud, or the rainbow, should be taken as the token of the covenant in the word -- when the rainbow is nothing more than a certain appearance arising from the modification of the rays of light from the sun then falling upon the drops of rain; and -- unlike the other signs of the covenant in the church just referred to -- only a natural phenomenon. But that the bow in the cloud represents regeneration, and signifies the state of the regenerate spiritual man, no one can known unless it be given him to see and therefore to know how it is.In other words, to separate the spiritual from the scientific is a fool's errand. To see things exclusively through the prism of religion or science is to see the world with one eye. The two should go hand-in-hand to help better explain the true nature of things, and the rainbow is perhaps one of God's greatest illustrations of this fact. The more mankind purifies himself/herself from the vices of the world and embraces goodness, the more truth comes to light.
It is because natural things correspond to spiritual that when what is around the regenerate spiritual man is thus presented to view it appears like a bow in the cloud; which bow is a representation of spiritual things in his natural. The regenerate spiritual man has a proprium of the understanding into which the Lord insinuates innocence, charity, and mercy; and according to the reception of these gifts by a man is the appearance of his rainbow when it is presented to view -- more beautiful the more the proprium of the man's will is removed, subdued and reduced to obedience.
Of course I don't believe that rainbows never existed before Noah, nor do I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Such an approach is childish. At the same time, it is equally childish to allow science the exclusive rights to an explanation of how nature operates. God and nature are like peanut butter and jelly: they were meant for each other. The rainbow, though a simple reflection, is also a reflection of God and his goodness...
... As is all of nature.
Take us home, Judy Garland: