Tuesday, November 13, 2018

What's a rainbow?

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 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.” 12 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: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:8-17).

i) As a rule, the aim of biblical exegesis is to read the text like the original audience would read it. Modern readers know both more and less about the world than the original audience. We know less about a particular time and place in the ancient world than the original audience to whom a book of the Bible was addressed, but we know far more about the world in general than the ancient audience. This carries the risk that we sometimes unconsciously import assumptions into the text that the original audience didn't share. 

For instance, a 21C American doesn't have to travel to Africa to recognize African animals. In theory, a 21C American could never travel beyond a 50-mile radius of his birthplace, but know a lot about the rest of the world. By contrast, many ancient readers had an extremely provincial knowledge of the world they lived in. In many cases, no knowledge of the world at large. Just their little corner of the world. Their village and thereabouts. 

ii) In addition, the same text can reflect more than one viewpoint. In the case at hand, there's the viewpoint of Noah and his descendants (e.g. Abraham), to whom the covenant sign was first revealed. In addition, there's the viewpoint of audience that Moses was writing for. The Exodus generation.

iii) Consider the impression a rainbow might have on the original audience. Let's assume that Noah resided in Mesopotamia. And that's certainly Abraham's fatherland. At least by modern standards, rain is rare in most of that region. Mind you, we have to be careful about extrapolating from the present to the past. From what I've read, the ancient Near East has become more arid over the millennia. But that means for Noah and his descendants (e.g. Abraham), sightings of rainbows might be highly unusual. 

Egypt is much drier. And depending on the area, rainfall is rarer by far in the Sinai desert. 

Now the implied audience for the Pentateuch consists of people who migrated from Egypt to the Sinai. It's possible that most of them never saw a rainbow. An unheard of phenomenon. Imagine the impact of a downpour in the Sinai, followed by a rainbow–if that was a novel experience. An extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. 

On the other hand, Palestine has rainy seasons, so they will be moving into a region where rainbows are more common. As such, the text had a shifting significance, depending on the reader's experience of rainbows. It's a useful exercise for a modern reader to put himself in the situation of Noah and Abraham, then Israelites in Egypt, then Israelites in the Sinai, then Israelites in Palestine, to consider the impression a rainbow would making depending on the regional climate. 

No comments:

Post a Comment