The rainbow is a complex symbol which has captivated the minds of humanity since the very beginning. Seeing that arch of light and color stretch across a cloud-darkened sky draws feelings of awe (and sometimes fear) still today.
Being the daughter of a science teacher, I know that a rainbow is caused by the refraction of light shining through water droplets resulting in the full spectrum of light becoming visible in the sky.
The ancient world didn’t know that. The rainbow was a beautiful and natural phenomena they couldn’t explain… and so it became a mystical symbol which helped them more fully understand the fullness of life and divinity. Sometimes those mystical stories revealed peace and beauty, sometimes they revealed fear and hardship.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient tale, the earliest surviving great work of literature, and has many parallels to the Old Testament stories Jews, Muslims, and Christians hold dear. The interweaving of the stories and accounts have been integral to scholars as they seek to better understand the ancient world and historicity of our ancient religious texts.
I remember being a teenager in high school and being told by my English teacher that we would be reading the Epic of Gilgamesh. Like my classmates, I groaned. But as the tale unraveled I found myself intrigued by the ancient tale and marveling at how much of what this ancient tale overlapped with the stories I had learned in Sunday School about the ancient world. The story of the Great Flood, in particular, drove home the idea that the stories of the Old Testament weren’t just stories, but a revelation of a far greater truth of how God works in this world.
However, one keen difference I discovered from my school readings didn’t really become evident to me until years later. While the rainbow which appears in the sky after the flood story in the Old Testament was a sign of God’s love and covenant with God’s people—God’s promise to set aside the righteous wrath caused by the proliferation of sin in the world and to embrace a relationship with humanity as they began anew—the rainbow in the Epic of Gilgamesh was a call to war.
It wasn’t until I reached adulthood and began to find an emotional and spiritual maturity taking root that the weight of that difference really settled in. We live in a world where we are constantly looking for divine signs to reveal that we are correct and others are wrong. We read signs into common, earthly, purely secular things: elections, television shows, natural events, etc… And always, we seem to assume that those signs are declaring us righteous and someone else unholy.
I guess you could say it is a modern-day call to war: We are right, we are strong, we will conquer that which is not like us.
However, in the days after the flood, God offered Noah one of those divine signs and it wasn’t about going to war at all. In fact, it was the exact opposite. It was a call to peace and harmony. It was a call to set aside strife and suffering. It was a call to live rather than to conquer. It was a call to exist in harmony rather than to drive out.
The ancient Gilgamesh looked to the sky and saw a rainbow and saw it as a call to war—to triumph over someone else, to divide and conquer and control. The ancient Noah looked to the sky and saw a rainbow and heard the voice of God telling him to live and love in peace and without fear.
The promise of the rainbow that God gave Noah is still just as important to us, all these generations later. We live in a tumultuous and stormy time. The dark clouds often hang over us and throw a shadow over our lives. More than ever we need to see the light stretching across the heavens, the beauty of the purity of that light, and hear the call to live peacefully and in complete trust of God’s power and faithfulness.
It isn’t a call to war at all.
It is a call to life.