In Genesis, after the all-encompassing waters of the Flood have at last abated, a memorable image makes its appearance in the clearing skies. “God said .. I will place my rainbow in the clouds .. whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears .. I will remember my promise that never again will the waters become a flood and destroy all living things”. Well I should think not! Shame on you for doing any such thing in the first place!
Myth has many functions, one of which, in pre-scientific times, was to ‘explain’ dramatic or colourful happenings in the world of nature. Few scenes are more eye-catching, or camera demanding, than the translucent, evanescent, arch-shaped spread of the same sequence of seven colours, no matter when or where they appear. They gladden the heart and raise drooping spirits, on an otherwise gloom inducing, rain filled day. The sun itself is invariably enticed to peep from behind the clouds to catch a glimpse of such a resplendent sight.
When I imagine this striking Genesis image, of the colourful bow in a rain filled sky, I think about the context in which it appears. There had been an almighty storm in which “all the fountains of the great deep burst open and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” It’s a stupendous picture of wind-hurled torrents of rain, rapidly building a gargantuan flood rising “20 feet above the mountains”. It’s a storm of mythical proportions, and it reminds me that the word ‘bow’ has another meaning. It’s also a formidable weapon enabling death-bringing arrows to wing their speedy way towards their intended targets.
In a Babylonian myth, the storm god Marduk defeats and dismembers Tiamat, the menacing goddess of the chaotically stormy salt waters. “He fashioned a bow and .. set an arrow in place. He rode the fearful chariot of the irresistible storm. He set his face toward the raging Tia-mat .. he despatched the evil wind. Tiamat opened her mouth to swallow it. He forced in the evil wind .. She stretched her mouth wide. He shot an arrow which pierced her, split her down the middle, extinguished her life. Half of her he put up to the roof of the sky, her waters arranged so that they could not escape”. Compare Gen.1.7.
In Genesis, there’s likewise a powerful wind blowing over a stormy, watery deep. The Hebrew word for “deep”, tehom, is related to Tiamat and has no definite article. It’s not ‘the deep’, but more like ‘Deep’ as if a personal name. There’s no direct mention here, however, of a cosmic battle between God and a sea monster, but there are references elsewhere in the Bible. In Psalm 74 it’s said of God, “It was you who drove back Sea by your might”, and in Job and Isaiah, there’s a celebration of God’s victory over a sea-monster called Leviathan or Rahab.
Like Marduk, God is also pictured as a divine archer. For example, Psalm 7 says, “If a man does not repent .. he has bent his bow and made it ready”, and Psalm 21 says, “Though they intended evil against you .. you will aim your bowstrings at their faces”. The Judeo-Christian God, like Marduk, can be pictured as a storm god, whipping up wind and flood, and firing rain, like arrows, into the faces of his foes.
But when you and I see God’s bow in the sky, we can relax. He’s reminding us that he’s hung up his bow. And, in addition, it’s no longer a solid, uncompromising weapon of war, but a gossamer thin and multi-coloured artefact of great beauty. Modern biblical scholarship has done us a great service in showing how an understanding of the Bible’s use of many themes and images from the myths of surrounding peoples, adds to its fascinating richness.