Reading the Rainbow

Rachel Muers
University of Cambridge

The striking textual links between the book of Jonah and the Genesis account of the Flood, noted by the Cambridge Biblical Reasoning group, call for further reflection on the relationship between the stories. Jonah is after Noah; but he, like his reader, is turned back to reread the story of Noah and ask what it means for those who identify themselves as “children of Abraham”.

The covenant with Noah is a covenant with “all flesh”, and it centres on a change in God’s heart (Genesis 8:21). From this point onwards, God has determined Godself for patience with, and faithfulness to, everything living – a covenant whose scope is unimaginable, taking in as it does not only “all generations” of humanity but the vast numbers of living creatures. The rainbow, the very first sign God makes, is established to remind God of this covenant (Genesis 9:15). God declares how it is to be read by other readers – as a sign for God of God’s own faithfulness to “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth”. God is, in this story, a reader of signs who draws others into the process of reading.

In the book of Jonah, I suggest, we see God teaching Jonah to read the signs of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, as God reads them. The point is not the continuing need of humanity to be reminded that God is faithful and “abounding in steadfast love” – Jonah knows that already (Jonah 4:2) – but rather the need to learn to read the signs of God’s faithfulness. The natural world in the book of Jonah is full of signs of God’s faithfulness to “all flesh” – the fish that “the LORD appointed”, the bush, the people and animals in Nineveh – which are repeatedly misread by Jonah.

What explains the tension between Jonah’s acknowledgement that the LORD “made the sea and the dry land” and his seemingly futile attempt to flee from God by going to sea? Perhaps it can be explored in terms of the tension between an assertion of God’s “global” concern and the practices of exclusion that such an assertion can often mask. It is one thing to say “God has made a covenant with all flesh” and another to say “God has made a covenant with both me and my enemy”. The former requires no new readings, the latter only comes about when one is taught by God to read the signs. Jonah learns to read the fish, the bush, and finally Nineveh itself. We might see this as part of the ongoing encounter between God and all the children of Abraham through which they, as (also) children of Noah, learn to “read the rainbow”.

The “reading” of the rainbow (and it must be noted here that the rainbow itself is not a “word” of God, not quite the same as a text; davar does not appear in Genesis until chapter 11) occurs in connection with the reading of texts that convey and interpret the divine sign. Noah is silent until after the flood and the declaration of God’s covenant. [i] After Noah, people enter conversation with one another and with God. The very fact that Jonah can call on God (for the first time in this story, although the sailors have addressed God already!) from the belly of the fish serves as a reminder that his life is located in the aftermath of the covenant with Noah, in the time in which the natural and human worlds are full of signs.

Jonah, then, knows that God is “slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love” because he is of the people within which that particular naming of God by Godself is recorded and reflected on – because he is, as he says, a Hebrew (1:9). Being a child of Abraham as well as a child of Noah means, perhaps, not only being taught to read the rainbow, each time in each particular situation, but being taught how to read the rainbow. The readers of these texts are made into “readers of the rainbow” by being given a further set of signs – signs that bring them into practices and ways of relating appropriate to readers of the sign of God’s faithfulness.

Also remembered in the book of Jonah, however, is the threat of destruction – without which the contexts in which the divine promise of faithfulness is relearnt make no sense. The waters that Jonah enters do not destroy him; and his liturgy from the depths points back to a puzzle in the story of Noah. God’s words in Genesis 8:21 suggest that God has destroyed “all flesh”, this once and never again; so what is the status of Noah and those with him, with whom the covenant is made? (There is an interesting comparison with Jonah’s declaration that he speaks from “the land whose bars closed upon me for ever”, 2:6 – how would it really be possible to speak from this place?). A deep question seems to remain about the nature of the resolve God makes – compounded by the close association between that resolve and God’s recognition of the “evil intention” of the human heart. The rainbow is obviously an “open sign”, perhaps the open sign that opens all the divine signs; less obviously, it seems at the same time to be a sign of something hidden.

As the Christian scriptures reread the story of Noah, these tensions in interpretation, far from being resolved, become even more apparent – together with words concerning the “one greater than Jonah”, who is also greater than Noah. 1 Peter 3:18ff. speaks of God’s patience before the flood, “during the building of the ark”, hence for the sake of the salvation of the few. On one reading of this passage, what is spoken of here in connection with Christ is a repetition of that patience, which consigns those outside (that is, outside the group reading this letter and owning these words) to the deluge. That is the repetition of divine patience that Jonah seems to seek, or assume God seeks. For Jonah, God will wait until the right time to destroy those excluded from God’s future – that must be either Jonah or the Ninevites.

However, Jonah’s story takes a different turn, and 1 Peter 3:18ff. takes a very different turn. Christ’s preaching is to ” the spirits in prison, who were disobedient during the days of Noah “. Part of the point about Noah’s story, it seems, is that it cannot be repeated; God has sworn never again to destroy all flesh. Its “non-repetition” in the book of Jonah is directed at the relearning, within the order established by the covenant with Noah, of the scope of God’s faithfulness. Its non-repetition in 1 Peter seems to be about a further reinterpretation even of the “change in God’s heart” – somehow to include the “spirits in prison”.

A discussion of this latter point would lie outside the scope of this article; but this whole consideration of Jonah raises an important question for the exercise of scriptural reasoning itself. If Jonah, this figure of the “Abrahamic” scriptures, only makes sense in the context of the covenant with Noah, what is the relationship between Abraham and Noah? What would it mean for the children of Abraham to understand themselves as also children of Noah?



[i] See on this Andre Neher, L’exil de la parole . It is noteworthy, however, that the Qu’ranic account of Noah focuses on his preaching before the deluge (Surah 71), and that rabbinic commentaries describe him praying in the ark.