What Does the Rainbow Mean in the Bible?

The colorful arc of a rainbow is one of the most beautiful sights in all of creation. The pattern of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet is what people commonly see in the sky when a rainbow appears. Rainbows aren’t unique to the modern world; skywatchers in the Bible saw them, too.

In the Bible, rainbows are God’s visual reminder to his people that he would never flood the earth again as he did in the days of Noah. Rainbows represent God’s faithfulness, grace, and care for people. In addition, other Bible writers see rainbows when they see images of God or angels.

What is the meaning of the Hebrew word for “rainbow”? What does the Hebrew word most often describe in the Bible? What does Ezekiel say about rainbows? What does John say? How is a rainbow associated with Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also, see How Long Did It Take Noah to Build the Ark? to learn more.

rainbow Genesis
What is the meaning of the Hebrew word for “rainbow”? See below

Rainbows Remind People of God’s Promise to Noah

In the days of Noah, sin was pervasive and intense worldwide in uniquely powerful ways (Gen. 6:1-4). The situation was so dire that God decided to start over and, in a sense, recreate the human race because “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5-7).

Thankfully, as Genesis reports, God found one righteous man to save, Noah (Gen. 6:8). God instructed Noah to build an ark, which would save him and his family from the ensuing flood (Gen. 6:14).

After the floodwaters abated, God told Noah and his family to repopulate the earth (Gen. 9:1-7). He said he would never again send a global flood: “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11, ESV).

God gives Noah a colorful sign in the sky

God also gave Noah a visible sign of his promise. Not all of God’s promises in Scripture have a visual reminder, but this one does. Genesis 9:12 reads, “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations'” (ESV).

The sign of God’s promise to Noah was a rainbow. “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13). Some Bible translations, in addition to the NIV, say “rainbow” (NLT, NKJV). Others say “bow” (ESV, KJV, NASB).

The Hebrew word for rainbow

The Hebrew word translated as “rainbow” or “bow” is qesheth (קֶשֶׁת). Although it doesn’t include the word “rain,” the modern term for what the Hebrew word describes is “rainbow.”

The Old Testament mainly uses the Hebrew word to describe the part of a weapon meant for shooting arrows (e.g., Gen 27:3). Because the meteorological phenomenon of a rainbow looks like a bow pointed skyward, Hebrew writers used the same term.

Also, see How Many Animals Were on Noah’s Ark? to learn more.

rainbow New Testament
What does Ezekiel say about a rainbow? See below

Rainbows in the Old Testament

Though Genesis contains the story of the most well-known rainbow in the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel mentions one, too. Unlike the rainbow in Noah’s day, Ezekiel refers to a rainbow as a comparison.

In the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes God’s glory from visions he had while in exile (Ezek. 1:1-3). In one part of the description, Ezekiel describes the light surrounding God, comparing it to a rainbow.

He writes, “Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around” (Ezek. 1:28a). Like in Genesis’ description of the arc in the sky, some Bible translations say “rainbow” because that is what the term means (e.g., NIV, NLT, NKJV).

Ezekiel scholar Daniel Block writes about the glory of the description. “The description of the vision closes on a glorious note. The dazzling radiance of the image reminds the prophet of a rainbow… this vision has not come to Ezekiel in simple monochrome; its polychromatic splendor is breathtaking.” [1]

Ezekiel scholar Iain Duguid explains the image’s meaning when he writes: “What the rainbow asserts is the faithfulness of God even in midst of overwhelming judgment. It is a sign of God’s self-commitment to his promise. God’s judgment must fall on his rebellious people, yet because of commitment to his covenant he will not wipe them out.” [2]

Also, see What Son of Noah Did Jesus Come From? to learn more.

rainbow in Scripture
When does John see a rainbow in heaven? See below

Rainbows in the New Testament

Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that mentions rainbows. One appears in John’s vision of heaven in chapter four. The second one appears in the context of the seven trumpets when John sees an angel descend to the earth. Both are associated with the rainbows in Genesis and Ezekiel.

The rainbow in Revelation 4

The fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Revelation include a glorious and beautiful description of heaven’s throne and the lamb, who is Jesus Christ, that sits upon it.

John writes that surrounding the throne was a rainbow: “And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Rev. 4:3, ESV). Revelation commentator Stephen Smalley writes about its significance:

“The bright rainbow is a reminder of the glory of God, as in Ezek 1:28, where the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord is compared to the bow in a cloud on a rainy day. But the rainbow is also a sign of the covenant between God and his people made with Noah after the flood (Gen. 9:8-17), when God’s saving love is extended to his creation through his judgment upon it.” [3]

The rainbow in Revelation 10

Most Revelation scholars see allusions to Ezekiel 1:28 (see above) in Revelation 10:1, “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire” (ESV).

New Testament scholar Grant Osborne helps readers understand how the angel is associated with God and rainbows: “In Ezek. 1:28 and Rev. 4:3, the rainbow encircled God, but here the rainbow is ‘over his head’ almost like a crown. Thus God’s glory and his mercy are represented in the angel.” [4]

Also, see How Big Was Noah’s Ark? to learn more.

[1] The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 1-24 by Daniel I. Block. NICOT. p. 105.
[2] Ezekiel by Iain Duguid. NIVAC. p. 59.
[3] The Revelation to John by Stephen S. Smalley. p. 115.
[4] Revelation by Grant Osborne. BECNT. p. 394.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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