Bows, Arrows, and Baptismal Fonts: The Significance of the Rainbow in the Bible
One of the perks of growing up in the Texas Panhandle was that I could see most of the United States from my front porch. It was that flat. Sunsets there transform the whole horizon into a vast canvas of color. And if you’ve ever wanted to actually find the end of a rainbow, then that’s the place to be. You can spot where both ends of the arch kiss the earth.
Speaking of rainbows, they were the stuff of my Sunday School years, along with candy and campfire songs. Noah, the animals two-by-two, and finally the multicolored memento that God wouldn’t liquidate the earth again. The rainbow made for a pretty ending to an ugly story, but, honestly, I’d lost as much sleep fretting about worldwide flooding as I had about being mauled by a Texas polar bear. The rainbow was just one more biblical footnote in that jumbled mess of story after disconnected story in the Old Testament.
Or so I thought it was. Now, when the rain has ceased, and I happen to spy that bright bridge shining in the sky, I see God at work, finger-painting in the heavens a picture of salvation. Here’s why.
The Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew, has no word for rainbow. Yes, I realize that in your translation of Genesis, it might read something like, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (NIV, 9:13). But the word often translated as rainbow, keshet, simply means a bow. What we see in the heavens is none other than a weapon of war.
But this weapon of war, two peculiarities set it apart. First, the bow is not drawn back. It’s suspended there, hanging in the heavens. Second, even as it hangs there, it’s pointed upward, not earthward. The bow of the divine warrior, the almighty judge, by which he shot oceans of arrows into the rebellious human race, has been retired. The instrument of execution has been changed into an emblem of peace–a hawk become a dove, a sword hammered into a plowshare. Now every time God sees His bow, He who never forgets will nevertheless remember His oath never to draw it again to punish the earth by a cosmopolitan flood.
But hold on, because the story gets even better. In two prophetic visions, Jesus appears wrapped in the radiance of this beautiful bow of peace. Ezekiel saw Him first, a man-like God, whose radiance was like “the bow in the clouds on a rainy day,” (1:26). John also saw Him, this God-become-man, enveloped by a rainbow that surrounded the throne of God (Revelation 4:2-3). Thus, as the story in Scripture unfolds, not only does the bow remain a token of God’s promise, iconic in the heavens; it also becomes associated with the manifestation of Jesus Christ, enthroned in glory.
And there’s yet one more wrinkle to this story. That ancient flood, which drowned the unbelieving world, but through which Noah and his household were saved, was a foreshadowing of the flood of regeneration and renewal which God works in the font. Peter says that “baptism, which corresponds to this [flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 3). The flood, which both killed and kept alive, was a predecessor to baptism, which drowns the old Adam within us and makes us alive by uniting us to Jesus Christ.
Now when we assemble all these parts of the biblical narrative, we see that, unlike I supposed in my Sunday School days, the rainbow is not just one more biblical footnote, disconnected from a seemingly disconnected story. In many ways, the two ends of the rainbow join together the two ends of the Bible, uniting Genesis to Revelation, and everything in between. When you are baptized, the Lord drowns you in that flood, but then raises you alive out of those waters to enter a new and better ark, the door of which was hewn open by a Roman spear in the side of Jesus the crucified. A rainbow envelops with its radiance our saving Lord. This colored arc betokens that He is the one who has put an end to the wrath of the Father, made peace between God and man, and ushered you into a new creation.
I’ve never walked into a church in which the baptismal font is adorned with a bow, pointing heavenward, hanging above it. But if I ever do, if you ever do, then we’ll know why.
++If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!