The Symbols, the Symbols, the Symbols!

Genesis 8:1-12; 18-24:  God Knows Us Before We Know

Today is our last look at the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. The rain storms finally stop, the water levels lower, and a rainbow appears in the sky. This, of course, is the supposed happy ending, because Noah and company are saved. The horrific memory of the flood, corruption of humanity, and the destruction of the world is just that—a memory. This is how we want to the story to end. Rainbows and smiling animals are painted on Sunday school walls and everyone is happy. But I challenge all of us to think differently about Noah, the ark, the flood, and the rainbow. In the tradition of American Christianity we tend to ignore the difficult parts of scripture and limit the Bible stories to quotable quotes and easy-to-swallow symbols.

But this kind of shallow thinking about the story leads to problems. As I mentioned before, because of our often-sanitized interpretation of Noah and the ark, we leave plenty of room for confusion, theological missteps, and even violent results. If we don’t talk about the flood and what it means, why God was disappointed and sad over humanity’s corruption of a good creation, and that ALL humanity was corrupt, that even after the flood and the rainbow, humanity was still corrupt—then we are creating a different story. And in doing so we miss the point; and the grace in it. So let’s read the story as it is, and emphasize the important symbols in the story there for us, meant to help us get the message.

The symbols to note: the birds [a raven and a dove]; the ark; the mountain; the number 40; and of course, the rainbow. The birds are an oft-debated topic among Jewish and Christian scholars. Why a raven? The raven, as a bird in mythology, doesn’t always have the best reputation. It’s known for being a scavenger and therefore unclean, and in extreme cases, a symbol for evil. But in Noah’s story, I buy the more practical explanation. A raven has an important talent—it can fly high and far, and it can endure harsh weather conditions.[1] And so mariners or ancient sea captains would use ravens as their compass. A raven would find land or even scavenge dead animals available to eat, floating on the water. If a raven didn’t come back, it had found food. If it returned, there was nothing there but endless water.

Noah was connected to creation. He understood the raven’s important role; the raven went first. A dove, on the other hand, was more delicate—not as hardy as the raven. A dove also would not look for dead animal remains and would wait until the safety of land was near. The dove went out the first time and then came back. Seven days later, Noah released it again. This time, the dove returned with an olive branch, meaning that the waters had receded. A third time, the dove is sent out, and this time it does not return. All is safe for Noah and company. Of course, in American Christianity, the dove is often associated with the presence of God’s Spirit, due to a dovelike bird descending on Jesus of Nazareth when he is baptized by John. But in the Hebrew Scriptures, the dove is more of a symbol of sacrifice, caring, and gentleness. In many burnt offerings to God, indeed the dove was the sacrifice. References to doves were also meant to highlight a person’s caring nature.

The symbol of the ark is of course, an important one. This big boat, like Jonah’s big whale, was a place to be shut in for reflection. The ark contained within it the Biblical figure many see as a “second adam,” Noah. The ark also ended up on a mountain. That’s significant, because later on in the Genesis and Exodus story, another man named Moses is on another mountain where he receives special instructions from God. This Law, as it became known as, was eventually carried across many lands by the ancient Israelites, and was called the Ark of the Covenant. So the ark is indeed a special “meet God” kind of symbol—a place where God protects and reveals God’s self to humanity.

And the number 40 is of great importance to the Noah story, and to the whole story of the ancient Israelites. Moses was 40 days in conversation with God to receive the Law; the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 days. Goliath kept on strutting his stuff in front of the Israelite army for 40 days until David’s slingshot downed him. Elijah went to Mount Horeb to meet God for 40 days. Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh that they had 40 days to shape up. In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth’s time in the wilderness [often referred to as his temptation] lasted 40 days. After Jesus died, the book of Acts states that Jesus appeared to people over a period of 40 days. So you get it. 40 is important. But 40 is not just a number.

In Hebrew, letters have numeric values. The thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is mem. Here is what it looks like:

Mem has several meanings: waters, people, nations, languages, and tongues. But we also know that the Hebrew word for water is indeed a mem word. So mem is often very closely associated with water. In fact, in its most ancient pictograph form, the letter actually looks like waves of water.[2] 

All this starting to make sense now? The number 40 is the letter mem which means waters. Symbolically, the Torah [the law] also is represented by mem, meaning that the Torah is a sea of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. And mem’s numeric value of 40 is a period of time necessary to bring something to fruition—a time for humans to be in the presence of the Divine in order to find wisdom and understanding. And we keep going back to water, don’t we?

That brings us to the most well-known symbol of the story: the rainbow. The bow of rain in the sky is an ancient symbol that parallels a warrior hanging up his bow and arrow as a sign of the end of war. The rainbow, in the Noah story, has little to do with our Sunday school murals. It is a sign of a battle ending–of the end of destruction and war. The Hebrew word bow in rainbow is indeed the same word for the bow of war. And it is not the most ancient use of this word. In 1928 a huge quantity of Canaanite texts was discovered in a village on the upper Lebanese coast. In one of these texts, hundreds of years older than Genesis, the authors describe the world’s creation, and El, the high God, “hangs his bow in the clouds” after finishing creation—something El could only accomplish after fighting a long, bloody battle with other divine creatures.[3]

Many historical interpretations of the Genesis rainbow point to this symbolism. In the 12th century in Spain, an important Rabbinical work by the Ramban [Nahmandides] teaches that the rainbow is an upside-down bow. The feet of the bow are bent downward to show that the heavenly shooting [rain, in this sense] have ended. And still more insight from the rainbow’s shape: the rainbow, wrote the Rabbi, is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. God can promise to never destroy humanity, but since humans are completely free to choose, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.[4]

So the rainbow of Genesis is intriguing, to say the least. Creation [animals, plants, earth, and human beings] is given a new beginning by God, a chance to live in harmony as it’s meant to be. But it is also a continuation of the good, in-harmony creation that God started in the first place. The really, really amazing part of the rainbow symbol is that God knows that humans are more than capable of screwing things up and turning harmony into disharmony. We seemed to be inclined to ruin a good thing. We’re meant to love and care for all creation and each other. Instead, we spend way too much time destroying animals, plants and creation. And we build walls of separation between our fellow humans on the planet. We invade, push down, hurt, and even kill. God knows this about us. And yet, in the Noah story, there is an eternal covenant made. It’s not an equal exchange, you see. It’s pure mercy on God’s part. The flood and the whole ark experience don’t make humanity perfect. But God still chooses to call humanity back to harmony and care and love. So God puts a bow up in the sky in spite of what God knows about us.

This spirit of believing in a harmony, wholeness, and peace that isn’t actually real yet has extended the rainbow symbol’s influence into modern-day culture. From the sky to banners and yes, flags—rainbows continue to inspire as symbols of diversity, inclusiveness, hope, and yearning. Years ago, Italy fashioned the peace flag.






In India, this flag, designed by spiritual teacher Meher Baba in 1924, is still flown during special times of year. The colors in the flag signify humankind’s man’s rise from the grossest of impressions of lust and anger – symbolized by red – to the culmination in the highest state of spirituality and oneness with God – symbolized by sky blue.[5] 

But of course, the world’s best-known version of the rainbow flag is sometimes called the freedom flag.

It became known as a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community’s diversity, struggles, and pride in 1978. And as the congregation I serve [United Church of Christ in Warminster] found out, though seemingly harmless in nature, a rainbow flag like this one does mean something. Shortly after hanging a United Church of Christ Open and Affirming rainbow flag on the outside of the church building, the flag was stolen. Of course, UCCW is not the only organization, church, or building to have a rainbow flag taken, defaced, or destroyed. Remember what I said about the Noah story in general—it’s not a sanitized, easy message. The symbols point us to a complicated and nuanced relationship between God and all humanity. God knows that we struggle with being good creations. We often resist caring for animals, plants, waters, and skies. We are often quick to judge and slow to include others. Do we put our bows in the sky as if to say, “I’m done with violence and destruction?” We haven’t. Our bows are still raised. All you have to do is open your eyes to notice that.

How could such an inclusive, beautiful, merciful symbol like a rainbow ever be negative or cause such division?

But that’s just it. That’s the Noah story applied to today. God loves; and recreates; and heals what is wounded; and repairs what is broken; and loves when love seems impossible; and God calls ALL of creation together. And God does this, knowing who we are and what we’re capable of. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t make me apathetic or jaded or hopeless. I actually feel more responsible; more connected; more inspired, because God gives us the freedom to bring harmony and mercy to others.

For there are rainbows in the sky and in our communities! There are opportunities to open the circle like a rainbow and invite someone in; there are moments in arks and in the wilderness when we find wholeness and perspective; there are birds that lead the way and offer new hope on the journey; and there are symbols shared by billions, across the planet–symbols like water–that bless, refresh, and heal. God knows us. And we still get the chance to know this merciful God, to know the harmony and balance of creation, to know each other.

The rainbow lacks a second half. It’s not completely whole. God has made the choice to love and recreate and bring together.

What will our choice be? Amen.

[1] The Mission of the Raven, David Marcus, Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

[2] NSW Board of Jewish Education,

[3] Opening The Old Testament: God’s Rainbow: Reflections on Genesis 9:8-17, John C. Holbert.

[4] The Ramban, Nahmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi, (1194 – 1270), Andalusia, España.

[5] Lord Meher, by Bhau Kalchuri, Manifestation Inc. 1986, p. 618

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

One thought on “The Symbols, the Symbols, the Symbols!

  1. Quite thought provoking. I did not know about the meanings of Mem. I will meditate tomorrow on “water”. Sky blue is my favorite color, and a sacred color to the Osage people, the tribe that I belong to.

    I am sorry to hear about the challenges with the flag destruction. Ideas that aren’t easy to get your head around often produce violent reactions. My immediate reaction was to try and “reclaim” the rainbow, but then I had “another think”. I remember that Reverend Jessie Jackson Jr. tried to put together a “Rainbow Coalition” that was intended to be a very big umbrella group, encompassing diversity. I will meditate on this one as well.

    You gave me plenty to think about. Thanks.

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