Was It God's
First Rainbow?

Joseph Francis Alward
May 3, 1998

After the Lord had drowned every living thing
on the surface of the earth except Noah and
his family, he told Noah that from now on
there would be no more apocalyptic floods
and--as a token of his good intentions--the
Lord would create a rainbow. Was this the
first rainbow, or just an extraordinarily
marvelous one? Here are the Lord's words as
recorded in Genesis:

"And God...spake unto Noah, and to his sons
with him, saying...I establish my covenant with
you....neither shall all flesh be cut off any more
by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any
more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God
said, This is the token of the covenant which I
make between me and you and every living
creature that is with you, for perpetual
generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and

it shall be for a token of a covenant between
me and the earth. And it shall come to pass,
when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the
bow shall be seen in the cloud:"
(Genesis 9:8-14)


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Questioning the Genesis Rainbow Story

Thus, the author of Genesis is making it clear that the Lord created the rainbow to mark the occasion of his grand covenant with Noah and his sons. If Noah's rainbow hadn't been the very first, then it's not likely that Noah would have been too impressed with this special "token" of God's contract unless it was truly the grandest rainbow ever.

If that rainbow was the first one, then there's a problem. Rainbows, as any first-year physics student knows, are created when the various components (colors) of white light from the sun are differentially refracted (bent) by water droplets, separated, and turned back toward the viewer. If Moses' story is true, and if Noah's rainbow had been the first rainbow ever to grace God's skies, then God for more than a thousand years must have delayed placing into operation the laws regarding the propagation of electromagnetic radiation (Maxwell's Equations). Otherwise, there would have been countless other naturally-created rainbows before the one he allegedly made for Noah. Such a delay, however, contradicts the story in the first chapter of Genesis: God completed his job of creation in the first six days, during which time he made the earth, heavens, man, beasts, plants, and--presumably--all the laws of physics.

Inerrantists Explain Why It Was the First Rainbow

Some creation scientists argue that there was no sunshine on earth--and thus no possibility of a rainbow--until after the flood--because the earth was under an all-earth cloud cover which blocked every ray of sunlight since the day of creation until the great deluge.  The cloud cover persisted until the flood because there was no wind to drive the clouds from the sky, and there was no wind because there were no temperatures differences.  There were no temperature differences because there were no mountains to prevent the lateral flow of temperature-equilibrating air currents.  Thus, the verse which speaks of god's first rainbow is proof that there were no mountains; at most, there were hills no higher than about ten feet.  After the flood came the great upheaval which raised the mountains, including Everest, and sucked in all that water. Or, something like that.

Better Harmonizations

There are at least two harmonizations inerrantists could offer which are less complicated and more believable that their astonishing cloud-cover explanation.   Instead of asserting that earth's first millennium was spent in semi-darkness, one could merely claim that the rainbow spoken of in Genesis 9:8-14 is not the first rainbow, but the very best rainbow, ever. An alternative way for the inerrantists to harmonize the rainbow story is to conjecture that God suspended the law of light refraction until shortly after the flood.


It will probably never be clear what the Genesis author had in mind when he told us the story of Noah's rainbow, but it seems likely that he meant for us to believe that the bow created by the Lord was, indeed, the very first rainbow. If it hadn't been the first rainbow, then the entire story loses its symbolic impact--even if the bow had been the best rainbow, ever.  In order to explain how that rainbow could have been the first one, inerrantists must explain how water droplets in the air would not have refracted sunlight. There are three possibilities:

                     No water in the air
                     No sunlight
                     No law of refraction

The first possibility requires too many improbables: no water condensation of evaporated lake and ocean water, no waterfalls, and no rainfall.  The second is just as unlikely as the first. Since God let there be light on the first day, and created the sun on the fourth, inerrantists would have to argue that there was a continual cloud cover from the time of creation until just after end of the flood. The third explanation might seem at first to be the simplest. All the inerrantist has to do to harmonize the rainbow story is assert that God must have suspended his law of refraction (bending) of electromagnetic radiation until he awarded Noah his bow in the sky; if God can make Balaam's donkey talk with a wave of his hand, he can certainly render one of his laws of physics inoperable.

The reason why the third explanation doesn't work is that Noah and his family would not have been able to see without refraction; all light through their eyes' lenses would pass right through to the retina without bending to a sharp focus.  Noah and his family would have been living in a world filled with very blurry objects indeed, and they surely would have noticed and reported the sudden change in clarity once God had made the law of refraction operable.