One of us went out on our porch on a recent evening last year and looked up into the sky soon after rainfall to see brilliant colors spanning the sky in a beautiful arch. The sight took our breath away, and left us in awe—feeling we had witnessed something magical, even sacred.
How about you? What first comes to mind when you hear the word “rainbow”? Or when you see rainbow colors anywhere these days? If you were to see a rainbow on a pin, a flag, clothing, a Facebook status, on “Y” Mountain or the White House, or a rainbow sign in someone’s yard, what would you think it signified?
Undoubtedly, you’d think it had some connection to LGBTQ+ issues. The rainbow has become so closely associated with this movement, it’s hard to imagine anything else (save a few St. Patrick’s Day holdovers and Hawaiian sports fans).
Origin and meanings of the gay rainbow flag. More than just a nice decoration and lovely visual, the image of a rainbow has come to send a certain message and signify something distinctive about identity, sexuality and love. Some see it simply as a way to communicate love and support to those identifying as LGBTQ+. Some see it as a way to protest heteronormativity and elevate queer voices. Some are making a political statement in support of various policies related to LGBT+ issues. And of course, others see it as a superficially pleasant emblem of an advocacy effort hostile to traditional morality and family life—one that has imposed itself into every domain of American life.
When Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in San Francisco, joined with documentarian and part-time pornographer Artie Bressan, Jr. in urging their mutual friend Gilbert Baker to design a symbol that would herald “the dawn of a new gay consciousness and freedom,” the rainbow flag was born—in reference to the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz.
This was a time when homosexuality was largely verboten and pathologized, so men attracted to the same sex would use the term a “friend of Judy” as a kind of code to signal to others their attraction to men. (If you were ‘in the know’, you knew what was being referred to. If you weren’t, it just went over your head). This ‘Judy’ friend they all had was Judy Garland, famous for her soulful torch songs and tragic personal history.
The lyrics to that most famous of her songs (recently voted “song of the century” and composed by Yip Harburg) are nostalgic, wistful and even tragic. She sings of a familiar yearning—recalling a land “way up high,” heard about in a soothing lullaby, likely when she was a young, innocent child. The singer longs to escape the confines of the earth and escape her troubles, fleeing somewhere beyond the rainbow. But she knows this desire is impossible. She knows like all of us do, that chasing a rainbow is futile. It’s always beyond your grasp—as you try to move closer, it moves further away. Only the leprechauns of legend had the power to stop the rainbow from retreating and reach its end, where untold treasure lay. But that power is beyond Dorothy, as it is beyond all of us on earth.
A flag for everyone…and no one. That’s how the rainbow came to be adopted by the gay community—originally as an eight-colored rainbow flag (and later modified to the familiar six-color flag). What’s curious is even though this symbol is highly malleable, and designed to accommodate a broad range of identities, many of those identities have felt the need to design their own unique flag rather than just unfurl the main one by itself. We counted up several dozen variations of the pride flag, but they continue to proliferate.
These flags celebrate ever-thinner slices of sexual and gender minorities and various intersectionalities. For example, there are flags for bisexuals, lipstick lesbians, polyamorous, pansexuals, BDSM, asexuals, transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, nonbinary, and maveriques. Additionally, there are flags designed to spotlight queer and trans people of color, straight allies, indigenous two-spirits, and so forth.
All this hints that this modern rainbow symbolism is not entirely satisfying, and that Gilbert Baker’s flag has failed to unite all gender and sexual minorities in a single “nation,” let alone unite all these communities with the broader collective. There are also growing signs this “rainbow coalition” is fraying.
Ancient symbolism of the rainbow. This presents a striking contrast to another use of the rainbow—that ancient, original meaning of the rainbow given by God to Noah after the Flood. This older sense of the rainbow is shared by Christian believers the world-over, and also many Jews and Moslems. This original sense could be considered the original “branding” of the bow, and it presents some striking contrasts with the more recent use of it.
While some doubt that it actually happened or speak of it as merely poetic and metaphoric, orthodox religious belief still attests that there was something known as the Flood—and modern day prophets confirm that point. After this massively traumatic event was over, both Enoch and Noah plead with the Lord to never allow such awful pain again. In response, God agreed that never again would “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.”
This covenant is what most Christians associate with the sign of the rainbow in the sky, as Genesis 9 recounts:
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…And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.
As the Christian Institute summarizes, “So the rainbow is not merely a symbol. It’s not simply part of an ancient story. It is a living example of God’s faithfulness. It is an assurance that God has not forgotten us and that he continues to work in this world.”
Unlike the ambiguity and contested meanings of the gay pride rainbow, which apparently doesn’t even feel inclusive enough for all sexual and gender minorities, God Himself proclaimed the meaning of this rainbow for all his children: as the covenantal marker or seal of His Covenant with Noah, and all His posterity, and indeed, “all flesh.”
Genesis is not the only reference to a rainbow in scripture. Other citations confirm that this ethereal display of colors has never been a mere atmospheric event to God. The citations provide hints at how He feels about the “bow.” The prophet Ezekiel described God as having “the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him…This is what the glory of the LORD looked like to me” (King James & New Living Translations).
And similarly, God Himself is described by John the Revelator as sitting on a “throne… set in heaven” with “a rainbow round about the throne.” (Notice this reference hints at a circular rainbow – something many don’t even realize represents the whole and complete form of the rainbow. We didn’t realize this ourselves until we saw one during a recent airplane ride). Even without riding at high elevations required to see something like this, the ancients had the inspiration to know rainbows in their perfected state make a complete circle. And what a lovely image that a perfect God’s perfect throne would be adorned with a perfectly round rainbow!
Later in his vision, John sees a “mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.”
The bow pointing to heaven. So, more than just a sign of God’s promise to humankind, this brilliant multicolored work of natural art represents God’s own glory, His appearance and the backdrop of His throne. All are marked by the brilliant colors of a rainbow in these visions. But why? Noting that the Hebrew translation simply refers to a “bow” (as in “bow and arrow”), Catholic author, Dr. Thomas Marshall suggests the arched rainbow was always intended to represent that kind of a bow as well, but with the arrow pointed not at us, but toward the heavens, “toward God.” After saving Noah’s family, as he puts it, “God has established a symbolic weapon in the sky prophesying that…He would take the arrow – not man. God would die. Man would be saved.”
Have you ever considered that meaning? As Dr. Marshall enjoins, “Teach people about the Covenants of God. Teach them about the meaning of the rain-bow. Thank God that He took our penalty so that we might know Him and enjoy Him forever!”
Speaking of enjoying God forever, many are not aware that Joseph Smith translated these same verses in Genesis 9—and revealed additional plain and precious communication between God and Noah that had been lost. Namely, that the beautiful image in the sky would be a reminder of “the everlasting covenant, which I made unto thy father Enoch; that, when men should keep all my commandments, Zion should again come on the earth, the city of Enoch which I have caught up unto myself.”
More than just ‘your children won’t be destroyed anymore’ and even more than ‘I will save you from sin,’ the rainbow according to this additional revelation specifically signifies the reuniting of God’s ancient and modern covenant people once they are ready. “This is my everlasting covenant,” the text continues quoting God, “that when thy posterity shall embrace the truth, and look upward, then shall Zion look downward, and all the heavens shall shake with gladness, and the earth shall tremble with joy; And the general assembly of the church of the firstborn shall come down out of heaven, and possess the earth, and shall have place until the end come.”
That was the promise made to Enoch, and then to Noah, and then—because we are their children (all of us), to all human beings: I will save you (if you want). And I will come down to you —with those who followed me anciently—and we will build a new society. With peace. Joy. And yes, with divine equality.
A different kind of equality than the activists are demanding, we’re afraid—since God’s equality depends on our yielding hearts, minds, and lives to Him…not exactly the rallying cry you hear in all the Pride parades today.
But it is our rallying cry as Saints today. Just as it was anciently for Saint Patrick himself, who went to Ireland to teach the people about Jesus.
An additional witness from science. Some might say that the rainbow is just an ordinary physical manifestation of refracted white light. But with the idea that “all things denote there is a God,” and testify of Him, the symbolism here is apt. White is considered the symbol of purity, and its brilliance the glory of God. When this apparently uniform and undifferentiated light is shined through a prism, that single color splits into all colors. All color, encompassed in one. With proper equipment, and the “eyes to see,” we can see the riches and diversity contained in something that may seem basic. And it goes further. The rainbow is in fact richer, deeper, and more powerful than we can perceive with our own senses, for the colors of the rainbow extend down into the warmth of infrared, and up into the high energy of the ultraviolet. Science adds its witness that there is more that we “cannot behold with our natural eyes at the present time”. What richness and beauty awaits us when our senses behold creation in their perfected form?
From science to scripture, another message in the rainbow becomes clear—one that pleads for our heart’s trust in something higher than our own feelings, beyond our present sight, and that promises great things ahead if we can manage to do just that.
A different message to celebrate. All this good news is central to the meaning God gave the rainbow—quite a contrast from the meaning others have given it today, and with quite a different genesis (pardon the pun). It’s true that some see the ancient and modern symbolism as overlapping in complementary ways. We do not. We see these meanings as fundamentally conflicting—with a symbol anciently connected explicitly with God’s covenant, now central to a movement that ultimately, almost inevitably, leaves people estranged from the covenant path.
As we take up the Great Commission to share this good news in our day, may we look at the rainbows all around us—and above us in the sky—and remember what God is planning for all who seek after Him with all their hearts. Even though our vision of the rainbow usually remains limited to just one incomplete arc of the perfect circle, let that portion of the bow point us to the whole—reminding us of the promised time when all will be complete and perfect, at rest in one brilliant, beautiful, glorious, eternal round.
Now, that’s something to celebrate.