Redeeming the Rainbow

Bringing History to Bear on Rainbow Symbolism, Past and Present

Political riots, rebellion, and revolution often give birth to iconic flags. History testifies of the link between revolutionary energy and the symbols that emerge and fuel that energy. Consider the swastika signifying the fascism of Nazi Germany, or the hammer and sickle characterizing communist movements. In addition to stoking the tempestuous fires of revolution, such symbols also generate solidarity within the ranks.

Understanding the power of symbols, Gilbert Baker—who described himself as the “gay Betsy Ross”—set out in early 1978 to fashion an iconic symbol that would represent the gay movement of his day and moving forward. Baker and his cohorts sought to replace the pink triangle that had formerly signified the gay movement with a universal and all-encompassing symbol, in part because the pink triangle carried negative associations for some with the Star of David. Baker writes:

I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power. As a community, both local and international, gay people were in the midst of an upheaval, a battle for equal rights, a shift in status where we were now demanding power, taking it. This was our new revolution: a tribal, individualistic, and collective vision. It deserved a new symbol.[1]

In the San Francisco winter of 1978, Baker settled on the rainbow as the design for his new iconic flag:

Rainbow. That’s the moment when I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make. A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary. The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope. In the Book of Genesis, it appeared as proof of a covenant between God and all living creatures. It was also found in Chinese, Egyptian and Native American history. A Rainbow Flag would be our modern alternative to the pink triangle. Now the rioters who claimed their freedom at the Stonewall Bar in 1969 would have their own symbol of liberation.[2]

A Striking Irony

Considering Baker’s symbol of choice, there is a striking irony in the Genesis passages concerning Noah, the flood, and God’s post-flood covenant signified by the rainbow. Perhaps the greatest irony is that God’s judgment executed in the flood came in response to human decadence similar to that which Baker’s rainbow flag now champions.

Genesis chapter six captures the degeneration out of which God rescued Noah. God “saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth,” to the end that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” This observation is followed first by God’s lament at ever having even created man, and second, by a decree that he would purge the earth but save the one man who had found favor in his eyes, the only one whom he regarded as “just and perfect.”

We all know the calamity—hardly a tale for children’s lore—that followed.

It was only after the calamity that the promise came. God, himself knowing the power of symbols, hangs his qeshet—his bow, his weapon of judgment—from the heavens as a symbol of the unilateral covenant made between himself and all living creatures. The imagery of the empty bow carries with it the powerful picture that God’s arrow of judgment has been fired, and the target has been destroyed. God has been true to his character in that his righteous judgment and justice has been served, his holiness is intact. Irish missionary James McKeown writes:

As the human beings and animals populate their new world, God promises that there will be no repeat of this disastrous, cataclysmic flood. This was not a promise that there would never be another flood but that God would not again use this method to punish sin. This was the worse flood that humankind had experienced. In the ark, winter and summer were the same and there was no seedtime and harvest. God promised that there would never be another flood like it. Both humans and animals could look forward to a future in which God guaranteed not to react to sin by destroying the world.[3]

Having exited the ark, Noah remembers God, builds and altar, and worships.

Few in our day recognize that devotion to the tenets of Baker’s Rainbow Flag is contrary to the tenets of God’s rainbow, which is a visible depiction of his character in the promise that when he sees his bow in the clouds, he will never again execute judgment in the form of a universal flood.

A Banner of Defiance

The message of Baker’s rainbow could not stand in greater contrast with that signified by God’s rainbow. Theologian Arthur W. Pink makes a connection between the rainbow and grace:

In the rainbow we have more than a hint of grace. As someone has said, “The bow is directed towards heaven, and arrow to it there is none, as if it had already been discharged.” There are many parallels between the rainbow and God’s grace. As the rainbow is the joint product of storm and sunshine, so grace is the unmerited favor of God [who is light] appearing on the dark background of the creature’s sin. As the rainbow is the effect of the sun shining on the drops of rain in a raincloud, so Divine grace is manifested by God’s love shining through the blood shed by our blessed Redeemer. As the rainbow is telling out of the varied hues of white light, so the ‘manifold grace of God’ (First Peter 4:10) is the ultimate expression of God’s heart.[4]

Most egregiously, the path of marching to the revolutionary beat of Baker’s colorful flag leads to darkness and despair. Indeed, the revolutionary energy and messaging stoked by Baker’s banner set the creature against the Creator and the created order. But the Creator and created order cannot be overturned by the creature.

Flipping the Rainbow Script

For the Christian faithful, the rainbow is not something to be surrendered to the spirit of the age. But the rainbow can be used as a conversation starter to introduce those seduced by the LGBTQIA+ nation to God’s character revealed in his covenants—both those in the Old Testament and the New Covenant in Christ.

Naturally, such a conversation would touch on the judgment that all deserve, thus casting the gospel of grace as even more desirable. Instead of remaining silent, people of faith concerned for the countless individuals caught up with messaging of the LGBTQIA+ movement can point to the original rainbow—the real one that appears in the sky after a rainstorm—and use it as an opportunity to open a dialogue about the true character of God and his gracious provision for mankind in Christ Jesus

[1] Baker, Gilbert. Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color. Chapter 5 “Stitching A Rainbow”, quoted online Rainbow Flag: Origin Story | Gilbert Baker, Gilbert. Accessed May 2023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] McKeown, James. Genesis. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2008, 63.

[4] Pink, Arthur Walkington. Gleanings in Genesis. Vol. 1. Moody Press, 1922.

Richard A. Hayes is an Adjunct Professor at Moody Bible Institute and Moody Theological Seminary Online, and is the Southwest District Representative for Village Missions, encouraging and shepherding pastors and their churches throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. Dr. Hayes graduated from Biola University with a BS in Christian Education, Talbot Theological Seminary, M.Div. in Bible Exposition and Talbot School of Theology, D.Min. With 38 years of pastoral experience, Pastor Hayes brings a wealth of insight to the sometimes-challenging task of shepherding and leading a local congregation. Dr. Hayes has been married to Ellen for 36 years and has three married daughters and six wonderful grandchildren.

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