The Rainbow

  • Rav Michael Hattin

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Rainbow

By Rav Michael Hattin


The idyllic state of Eden is short-lived. Adam and Chava soon abrogate God's straightforward command and are banished from the lush and fertile garden. Kayin their firstborn, filled with jealous rage over God's rejection of his offering of the fruits of mediocrity, murders his own brother Hevel and is himself then driven into exile east of Eden. Enosh, Adam's grandson, presides over humanity's first flirtation with corrosive idolatry, and by the conclusion of last week's Parasha, the stage is set for the cleansing Flood to wash away the ubiquitous stain of man's insufferable immorality. One man and his family are preserved: righteous Noach, his wife, his sons and their wives. Bidden by compassionate God to build an ark of gigantic proportions, he dutifully completes the protracted project, as all terrestrial species under the heavens timidly begin to gather at its titanic portal. With the approach of the black storm clouds, the passengers – human and otherwise – board. As Noach slowly closes the hatch and seals it tight, he casts one final, plaintive glance at the verdant but violent landscape. For the denizens of the dank and dusky ark, there will be no turning back.

For just over a year, the floodwaters cover the earth, obliterating any and all evidence of man's wrongdoing. The ark, tossed by colossal swells, bobs up and down uncertainly, its sturdy timbers – Noach's cautious handiwork – groaning but holding firm. Finally, with an unsettling grinding noise that sends the creatures momentarily scrambling for cover, the ark touches down upon the rocky slopes of Mount Ararat. Though time now passes interminably, it will be a few more months before it is possible to disembark. At last, with bright sunlight streaming down through an opening in the dense cloud cover, Noach flings open the hatch. Creatures of every sort tentatively descend to the firm, black and rock-strewn earth, lingering only briefly under the shadow of the ark's massive eaves before bounding away to replenish the decimated planet.


Noach offers sacrifices of thanksgiving, and God accepts them, solemnly pledging never to again bring floodwaters upon the earth to obliterate all life. The covenant with humanity is not one-sided however, for man is called upon in turn to fulfill the provisions of the so-called seven Noachide principals, a brief series of basic moral and ethical laws that are sensibly predicated upon the acknowledgement of God's transcendence and authority. Finally, before Noach and his children turn to the more mundane task of rebuilding, God seals His covenant with a heavenly sign:

The Lord said to Noach and to his sons with him: As for Me, behold I will establish My covenant with you and with your descendents after you, and with all living things that are with you, bird, beast and all living creatures of the earth, all that have disembarked from the ark , all living things upon the earth. I will establish My covenant with you so that all flesh will no more perish by floodwaters, for there will no more be a flood to obliterate the world. The Lord said: this is the sign of the covenant that I establish between Me and you and all living things that are with you, for evermore. I have placed My rainbow in the cloud, and it will serve as the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring heavy clouds upon the earth, then the rainbow will be visible in the clouds. I will remember My covenant that is between Me and you and all living flesh, and the waters will no longer be a flood to destroy all life. The rainbow will appear in the cloud and I will see it and remember the eternal covenant between the Lord and between all living things, all flesh that is upon the earth. The Lord said to Noach: this is the sign of the covenant that I establish between Myself and all flesh that is upon the earth! (Bereishit 9:8-17).


The above passage, its seeming repetitiveness intended as emphasis, sets out the covenant that God establishes between Himself and all life. In an unusual departure, God not only extends His word (could anything be more trustworthy and reliable?), but then reinforces His word with a tangible and concrete sign. The text does not indicate whether Noach and his family experienced misgivings concerning God's initial oath, doubts that had to be overcome by the sign of the rainbow. Certainly the opinion is expressed in the early Rabbinic sources that Noach's faith was somewhat tenuous. Did he not, says Rashi (11th century, France), hesitate to enter the ark until the rising floodwaters forced him to do so? (see his commentary to 7:7).

Then again, perhaps God's intent was no more than to reassure a remnant of humanity so shaken to the core by the experience of the Flood that any heavy cloud cover might unsettle them mightily, lest it be a harbinger of something much more ominous. Therefore, He set their minds at ease (and ours as well) by providing not only His word but also the substantial sign of the rainbow that frequently accompanies a storm.


For the most part, the commentaries are interested in other questions, the chief one among them whether the rainbow makes its first appearance in this post-diluvial encounter between God and Noach, or whether it had in fact been sighted earlier in human history but carried no covenantal associations until now. The straightforward reading seemingly suggests the former – "The Lord said: this is the sign of the covenant that I establish between Me and you and all living things that are with you, for evermore. I have placed My rainbow in the cloud, and it will serve as the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth." As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains:

The implication of the text referring to "this sign" is that there had never before been a rainbow in the clouds since the time of creation. Now God created something entirely new, to provide a rainbow in the heavens at the time of rainfall…

The Ramban, however, is quick to point out the difficulties that are raised by such an approach:

As for us, we have no choice but to accept the opinion of the Greeks who maintain that the rainbow is an entirely natural phenomenon caused by the sun's rays striking the moist air after a rainfall. Any vessel of water that is placed in the sunlight will also produce a rainbow-like effect.

In other words, says the Ramban, the rainbow effect is nothing miraculous that requires a special and new act of creation. Whenever the proper conditions exist for its formation, it will be visible. White light, any student of elementary science will explain, is actually composed of a number of colors. When such light passes through a refractive medium such as water or glass, its rays are bent to effectively separate into constituent hues as a function of their wavelength. Thus, how could the rainbow not have been visible prior to the Flood? Surely precipitation fell upon the earth from time immemorial, and a rainbow would have been visible! Unwilling to unnecessarily surrender what seems reasonable for what requires adducing miraculous intervention, the Ramban therefore concludes that the rainbow had in fact been a feature of the primordial skyscape as well, but only now does the sign take on special significance:

The text states "I have placed My rainbow in the cloud" (i.e. in the past) and not "I place My rainbow in the cloud" (i.e. in the present), as for instance it says concerning the covenant that "this is the sign of the covenant that I establish." The term "My rainbow" implies that it had existed earlier. Therefore, we explain the verses to mean that the rainbow that I placed in the clouds from the time of creation shall from this day forward constitute the sign of the covenant between Me and you, for whenI shall see it I will recall that a covenant of peace exits between Me and you…(commentary to 9:12-17).


What is most striking about the Ramban's formulation is that he is not averse to reexamining the reading of a Biblical verse if necessity requires it, even if that necessity be introduced by the proverbial Greeks themselves! The straightforward reading may imply one thing, but where reason may conflict with such a reading, then the text must be considered more carefully. It cannot be, he seems to argue, that the Torah would demand of us to believe that which is known to conflict with empirical evidence. But rather than throwing up his hands in a fit of exasperation, as if to say "we cannot understand this verse adequately but we nonetheless accept it as is!", the Ramban goes on to REINTERPRET the text in order to reflect the findings of natural science. Unfortunately, he does not provide the principle here enunciated with any exegetical parameters. Could not the Ramban's words be easily and dangerously misconstrued as license to reinterpret other "unreasonable" verses, as demanded by any malevolent or capricious whim that can easily muster any number of convenient new findings for support?

Of course, the most significant parameter may be provided by the context itself: here we deal with a section of narrative and not with law, with the interpretation of an event and not with ritual or ethical observance, with understanding part of a story and not with anything that could be even remotely regarded as possessing legal consequence. In other words, there are no mitzvot of the Torah that hinge directly or otherwise upon the interpretation of this passage.


It is of more than passing interest that the Ramban employs a similar interpretive freedom in this very Parasha. Concerning the thorny issue of the chronology of the Flood, he parts ways with the opinion of Rashi who backs himself into an interpretive corner with his assertion that the forty days of rainfall are not to be included in what the Torah later describes as the "one hundred and fifty days" after which the floodwaters begin to recede (see 7:24-8:14). In so doing, Rashi unleashes a chain of difficulties that ask us to understand the terms "seventh month" and "tenth month" in a most convoluted fashion. In contrast, Ramban maintains that the forty days of rainfall are to be calculated as part of the one hundred and fifty days of rising floodwaters, an approach that greatly simplifies the chronology of the entire passage. But in so doing, Ramban not only rejects Rashi's interpretation, but also the Rabbinic bedrock of the Seder 'Olam Rabbah upon which it is based!

Undaunted, Ramban sets out on his own path, but not without first introducing his interpretation with the following telling words: "In some places Rashi himself takes issue with Aggadic midrashim and exerts himself in order to explain the straightforward meaning of the text. His example thus gives us license to do likewise, for there are seventy facets of Torah interpretation, and many midrashic sources preserve differences of interpretation between our Sages" (commentary to Bereishit 8:4). This presumably, is the qualification that we earlier sought, for it is clear from this passage as well that Ramban confines the discussion to "Aggadic midrashim" that have no bearing whatsoever upon the 613 mitzvot, their interpretation or their application.


We often make the mistake of believing that the Torah is a book of science or history or whatever other discipline we are absolutely sure it contains in perfect measure. But it is not. The Torah is a book of guidance and instruction, the document by which we come to know God and respect man, serve Him while neglecting neither His own beloved creations nor the precious soul with which He endowed us. Any scientific or historical material that the Torah contains is therefore secondary to its didactic message or legal content. But by the same token, the Torah cannot negate objective truth, as if what is scientifically or historically unassailable is unreliable or else irrelevant. "God's seal is truth" say the Sages, and His Torah must reflect the very truth that characterizes Him.

The Ramban was no doubt aware of this inherent tension when he considered the phenomenon of the rainbow. Clearly, when exactly in the history of the world the rainbow came into being is not the main point of the narrative. What is truly important in this passage is that God cares and is concerned, that He extends to us the eternal sign of His covenant in order to indicate that He will not cease to believe in us even when our collective conduct leaves much to be desired. But at the same time, the verses, all of them, must be explained, and it is our holy task to ponder their meaning. We must not, however, impose an explanation that flies in the face of either what is reasonable or else what is known. Fortunately, as the Ramban so deftly demonstrates, the Divine text of the Torah is profound enough to allow us to read and to understand its narratives in more than one way. And as we do so, we would do well to remember the important lessons provided by the sign of the rainbow.

Shabbat Shalom

For further study: see the comments of the Ibn Ezra on 9:14 who effects an uneasy compromise by declaring that although the rainbow is a natural and predictable phenomenon, it was not visible in the storm cloud before the events of our Parasha. This is because the conditions necessary for its formation – bright sunlight – were "withheld" by God until now! Obviously, the Ramban disagrees with Ibn Ezra's rather forced formulation.