"I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Genesis 9:12-15)
When God tells Noah to build an ark because the world is going to be destroyed, God promises to establish a covenant with Noah and his family. (Genesis 6:18) Once the waters of the flood have subsided and all the inhabitants of the ark are on dry land, God then fulfills the promise by setting a rainbow in the sky.
A covenant (b'rit) is a binding agreement between two people or parties; a kind of contract. There are at least two sides to every contract. For Noah's part, he built the ark that God directed him to build, according to specific measurements. Then Noah took two (male and female) of each kind of animal and bird and creeping thing on earth, and food for all of them, and placed them in the ark. "Noah did just as God commanded him". (Genesis 6:22 and 7:5) The Text above describes God's "part" of the contract. The rainbow symbolizes God's promise to never again destroy the earth and everything on it.
Why a rainbow? Ramban suggests that the rainbow is like an archer's bow without the string. Its base is not above the earth as if it were aimed downward, poised to send arrows of destruction. Instead, it is pointed towards heaven. Ramban reminds us that in ancient times, warring nations would offer signs of peace by turning their weapons away from their adversaries. In this way, God was showing a sign of love and compassion; that God would never again display anger or displeasure with humankind by destroying earth.
Tokens or signs were often used to remind two people or parties of the covenant (b'rit) that they had agreed upon. The Hebrew word used for sign is ot. Ramban points out that the rainbow is only one of many signs of God's kindness and love. Circumcision is also a sign of the covenant between God and the children of Abraham:
"... and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you ..." (Genesis 17:11)
The fringes (tzitzit) that God commanded the people to put on the corners of their garments are also a sign:
"Looking upon it ... you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments ..." (Numbers 15:39 -- 40)
To Talk About
- The Text section says "When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant ..." Why would God need to be reminded of anything? For whose sake was the rainbow created ... for God's sake or for the sake of human beings? Explain your answer.
- According to Torah, God destroyed the earth because it was filled with lawlessness, chamas. (Genesis 6:11) Chamas also means violence or corruption. Since there is no further explanation of this lawlessness in the Torah, Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 31:50) explains it as petty theft—theft so small that there was no legal recourse against the thieves. When a basket of peas was brought to market, everyone would steal just one or two peas—too small to be a punishable offense. After awhile, the bushel would be empty, but none of the peas were sold. The seller couldn't go before a court of law because each thief had stolen less than what was considered illegal. The people convinced themselves that theft of this nature was acceptable. This, the rabbis explain, was the sin—not that they had stolen, but that the people believed that they had done no wrong. Do you think that people need laws to know the difference between right and wrong? Are right and wrong determined solely by laws? Do you think that people do "right" because they are afraid of getting caught or because they want to be good? What do you think is the lesson of the midrash about the peas?
- According to the rabbis, there were seven laws that existed even before the giving of the Ten Commandments. These laws, applicable to all people—not just Jews—are called the Noahide laws because Noah had a higher moral code than the other people of his time.
These laws are:
- Don't worship idols
- Do not take God's name in vain
- There must be courts of justice
- Do not murder
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not commit robbery
- Do not cut the flesh from a living animal.
What is the overall message of these laws? What kind of society do these laws imagine? What laws are missing for the kind of society you imagine?
- Clearly, lawlessness, violence, and corruption still exist in the world. What keeps the world from being destroyed by this chaos in our time? Although God promised never to destroy the earth, what about people? Can people destroy it? How? How can we save or protect the earth?
Extend your understanding of the Noah story by reading Why Noah Chose the Dove, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58