Rainbow: the sign of a peace treaty.
At least, that’s how the Torah wants you to understand it.
As a sign of hope in troubled times.
THE THEORY: A RAINBOW TREATY
Let me explain. The Hebrew word keshet means “bow.” That’s a weapon used for hunting and war. This weapon appears—unfortunately—dozens of times in the Tanakh.
But a rainbow—a keshet in the sky—appears in only two stories.
One is the story of Noah’s ark. The earth is filled with violence. God instructs Noah to place his family on a boat, together with representatives of all animal species. Then, God floods the earth with rain. Almost everyone drowns. The sailors on Noah’s boat are the only survivors.
As they exit the boat, God says to Noah,
“There won’t be another flood to destroy the land. This is the sign of the treaty I’m making between me and you and all the living creatures that are with you, for all generations, for ever. I place my bow in the clouds.” (Gen. 9: 11-13, translation mine).
The bow has a double meaning.
It is, of course, a rainbow. As a storm tapers off, the clouds part. Sunlight shines through the mist, bending in a colorful arc. So when we see the rainbow, we know: the earth will not be destroyed by flood. At least, not today.
But the bow is also a weapon. God’s weapon. Perhaps the very weapon God used to rain destructive arrows of water down on the earth.
So, here, God lays this divine weapon down on the floor of heaven.
It is the sign of a brit: a peace treaty, a pact, a covenant.
Who are the signatories to this treaty? Who is called into this ceremonial moment? And charged with holding the peace?
Why, it’s God, all humanity, and all creatures on the planet.
And what better moment to affirm this than the exit from the ark? Where all creatures lived in peace for 370 days?
THE PRACTICE: AN ANIMAL VISION
The rainbow treaty is such a lovely vision.
But how does a community live into it?
The prophet Isaiah has a plan. But he doesn’t present it in a straightforward way. Instead, inspired by the creatures on the ark, he speaks in animal metaphors.
A wolf shall visit with a lamb, a leopard lie down with a kid. A calf, young lion, and fatling together, and a little child shall guide them. A cow and bear shall graze; their young lie down together. And a lion, like an ox, shall eat straw. A baby shall play over a viper’s hole; and over an adder’s fang, a toddler shall extend its hand. No one will do evil or destroy, anywhere on My holy mountain. For the land shall be filled with knowledge of the YHWH as water covers the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9, translation mine).
The peaceful lambs control the land. What makes them peaceful? They govern without a policy of revenge. Once, the wolves hunted them. But now, with mercy, lambs let the wolves sojourn as guests. Because a predator, like the leopard, can change its spots.
The cow and the bear, two grieving mothers, bond. Together, they set aside their painful histories and seek a new way of living. They raise their children, side by side, as friends.
And then, even the fiercest—the ox and the lion—can change. And when they are de-fanged, so to speak, innocents can be safe, even from accidental harm.
This kind of peace is not automatic. It is not easy. There’s a lot of work: personal, political, spiritual.
But it is possible.
At least, that’s the promise of the rainbow.
Read more about Isaiah’s vision of peace in my book *Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals*.