Arks and Bows

Posted on 2011/12/07


Feature Image - Arks and Bows

In a previous article, I wrote about the sloppy representation of rainbows in art. Artists who usually demonstrate extraordinary observational skills for landscapes, animals, and human interactions, seems to have a terrible blind spot for the relatively simple rainbow.

Considering that there is such a widespread misperception of this atmospheric phenenomon – certainly not restricted to artists - perhaps there is an educational lesson to be learnt. In short, this article attempts to find someone to blame, and I think the story of Noah’s Ark is the source of the confusion.

In this article I would like to discuss the following things:

  • Our need to explain natural phenomena.
  • The role of a rainbow in the story of Noah’s Ark.
  • The rainbow’s misrepresentation in children’s fiction.
  • What rainbows actually look like, and why we can do without Noah and his Ark.

It will of course be necessary to remember to focus while critiquing such a tale. For example, although it is tempting to challenge the 30% of Americans who think the Bible is the literal word of God, this has been done by far better writers than myself, and to little effect. The same goes for admonishing the tendency of most schools’ to omit telling their students (either unthinkingly or deliberately) that the story is fiction.

Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most recent author to substantially address this issues:

Once again, I am sorry to take a sledgehammer to so small a nut, but I have to do so because more than 40 per cent of the American people believe literally in the story of Noah’s Ark. We should be able to ignore them and get on with our science, but we can’t afford to because they control school boards, they home-school their children to deprive them of access to proper science teachers, and they include many members of the United States Congress, some state governors, and even presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth  pp 269-270


If you assume the story of Noah to be true, the number of moral and scientific troubles one can find seem to only be limited by your imagination and time constraints.

Here are some of the more common objections:


  • What did the animals do wrong? (Indeed, what did the humans do wrong?!)
  • What did the fish do right?
  • Why such a melodramatic and painful method for ecocide? If god’s is omnipotent, why did he not just disappear all humans from existence? Or, if a more bloodthirsty demise is really necessary, why did he not utilize a more direct weapon from the retributive arsenal, such as the lightning bolt?
  • How did all the animals fit into the ark? / How big would such an ark need to be to float?
  • How were the animals fed? / How were the animals prevented from eating each other?
  • Where did all the water come from? Where is it now?
  • How did Noah secure two of each animal, considering many species have extremely localized habitats, scatter around the world?
  • How did the species get back to the habitats they needed to survive? Why are there no fossil records of these mass exoduses, emanating from the epicenter of Noah’s ark?
  • What happened to the dinosaurs?

However, I don’t want to talk about any of those things here. My dispute lies with this story’s use of the rainbow. To begin, it is interesting to consider a possible motive for such a story, assuming that it is a fictional tale.


For the majority of our species’ existence, meteorological and seismic activities were uncomprehended phenomena, punctuating each human life.  Some benign phenomena, such as rainbows, were the semi-colons; events that elicited immense confusion. More dangerous events were, for fortunate survivors, a concatenation of exclamation marks. For those less fortunate, they were full stops.

Learning about the dangers of the more frequent natural disasters had a clear evolutionary advantage. Learning not to touch the red stuff flowing out of the mountain, or to keep inside the cave when the swirly wind approached increased a human’s chance of survival.

As well as a familiarity with the dangers of theses events, our predecessors also seemed to require explanations for these calamities. The ‘explanations’ they invented often contained invisible agencies – the gods, spirits and ancestors they supposed controlled the world. These stories, lacking in predictive or technological advantage, could therefore offer no additional survival advantage (other than, perhaps, to package the tribes research into a memorable tale).

Yet, they did serve another purpose – not evolutionary; but psychological. They provided solace for the powerless. Some also offered false empowerment, convincing people that they had a say in their fate, as long as they performed the right rituals and sacrifices. If their attempts failed, these stories allowed for fatalist submission. Either the rituals were of the wrong kind, or, as the musical Chicago puts it, “he had it comin’.”

It is the same combination of masochism and wishful thinking we see in today’s religions.


The above analysis only accounts for half of the Noah’s Ark story. While the flood is deemed to be punishment for sin, the rainbow is also prominent and appears with the following explanation:

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 I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh;
and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 

(Genesis 9 : 13-15)

While evolutionary and psychological justifications can be presented for the need to explain dangerous weather, the same arguments doesn’t hold for rainbows. Misunderstand a rainbow, and you will likely escape with your life, and your confidence intact.

Perhaps it demonstrates the human mind’s demands for explanations, no matter how redundant – an egotistical view, where we require to know the purpose of all the props on nature’s stage, and assume to have the leading roles. Or, perhaps it demonstrates how we need to explain the pleasant aspects of nature as well as the dangerous. It is the dual of supposing we deserve our punishments - we also deserve our rewards.


Now, permit me a brief analysis of the rainbow’s place in this story.

The concluding verses of this Genesis tale provides the reader with one of the many examples The Bible offers to demonstrate the Lord’s ironic and sometimes cruel sense of humour.  After 40 days of relentless rain, a rain that destroys all of the land-bound oxygen-breathing animals on the surface of the Earth, what symbol does The Lord choose for His promise to never commit this ecocide again?  A rainbow: a phenomenon which – and the clue is in the name – necessitates rain.  More rain.  Imagine the look on Noah’s face.

Some Muslims cite this as an example of the absurdity of the Christian Bible. They say that the story requires the rainbow to be a new phenomena, created for the event. Thus, they say, it demonstrates how Christianity has a poor grasp of science. These are often the same Muslims which claim the Qur’an contains scientific miracles – divine hints at modern scientific theories, including black holes and dark matter. And so, they are no strangers to scientific misunderstanding. To paraphrase Jesus: let he who doesn’t live in a glass house, cast the first stone.

Purpose built or not, the rainbow isn’t a very clear message. Firstly, how was Noah to guess its meaning unless God told him, and how are we to know what it is supposed to signify unless we read it in the Bible? Also, one might ask what happened to Noah’s direct communications with God now that they seem to be resorting to the exchange of doves and rainbow?

At the heart of all of these curiosities is the question of why the rainbow features at all in the story.

Presumably, the rainbow is to represent the passing of rain. A rainbow requires the sun behind you and rain in front of you. So, it does demonstrate a break in the clouds, but also requires rain, and doesn’t mean the rain is about to stop. Often seen as a symbol of hope (because of this story), one wonders whether a rainbow would offer Noah any comfort.

Then there is the chilling question of why God thinks he needs a reminder to stop himself from killing us all with a massive flood. Are we to suppose God starts each rainstorm with the intent to wipe us all out until, oh look, a rainbow. I remember now. I promised. Better call off the extinction.

How much should we trust a God who needs to tie a piece of multicoloured string around his wrist to remind himself not to go on a killing spree?


For moral comparison, lets review some other myths where the rainbow features.

First we have the Greek goddess Iris, where we get the name for the coloured part of the eye. She was the messenger goddess; the female Hermes.

Then there is the Irish ‘end of the rainbow‘ myth. The story plays on a misunderstanding of the rainbow as an object, placing the magical wealthy dwarfs forever out of reach. Similarly, Harold Arlen and  E.Y. Harburg’s ”Over The Rainbow” emphasizes the unobtainable nature of ones wildest dreams by placing them, not just beyond human abilities, but beyond possibility.

Can we say anything complimentary about the story of Noah? What moral messages or poetry does it provide? That the punishment for disobedience is death by drowning?

I can think of nothing redeeming about the myth. If you want a children’s story with anthropomorphized animals, let them watch Disney’s The Lion King. (It, incidentally, contains Biblical influences.) Or, for a less sanitized representation of nature, read the The Jungle Book to them. Both contain far more noble tales than can be found anywhere in the Bible.


Although the above offers a pretty damning case to remove Noah’s ark from popular children’s fiction, I think we can dismiss the stories solely on its ability to proliferate basic mistakes about the rainbow.

I offer the jury 12 examples for their examination:


Journey to Noah’s Ark (Bible Train Adventures)
Gregory Warner (Author, Illustrator)


Noah’s Ark and Other Bible Stories
Ann Pilling (Author, Editor), Kady MacDonald Denton (Illustrator)


Noah’s Ark: Bible Rhyme Time
Barbour Publishing Inc (Author)

Noah and the Ark
Christopher Rothero (Author)


Noah and His Great Ark: Sticker Fun
Juliet David (Author), Helen Prole (Illustrator)


The Story of Noah’s Ark: Wall Clings
Lori C. Froeb (Author), Luana Rinaldo (Illustrator)


Noah And The Ark With Cd
by Karen Mitzo Hilderbrand; Ken Carder; Kim Mitzo Thompson


Noah’s Ark Colouring Book
Cathy Beylon (Author)

The Story of Noah: The Story of Noah in English and Spanish
Patricia A. Pingry (Author), Stacy Venturi-Pickett (Illustrator)  

The Old Testament Bible Stories For Children – The Story Of Noah (DVD)


The First Rainbow Sparkle and Squidge: The Story of Noah’s Ark
 Su Box (Author)

NRSV Noah’s Ark Bible: An Illustrated Children’s Bible

Thomas Nelson

10 out of the 12 of these publications are available from They all present startling misrepresentations of the rainbow.


To understand the rainbow, you don’t only need to understand how rain and light work, but also how you work. The colours are a consequence of how your eyes work, and the shape arises from the physics of light, and your limited point of view.

Jump, and the rainbow jumps with you. Run towards it and it runs just as fast away. This is because the rainbow is not an object. It is a perception of colours that requires an exact triangulation between the sun, the rain and you. This is of course why you cannot reach its end, or fly over it.

Is also not an object because neither is the rain. The image is produced by a fragmented waterfall, a section of the sky continually losing and gaining water as the raindrops decend.

Isascc Newton was the first physicists to present a full understanding of a rainbow. Below is Figure 15 from his 1704 book ‘Optiks‘.

The shape of the rainbow (understood by Descartes and others) is determined by the refractive properties of light when entering a raindrop.

In the diagram, light is coming from a very distant sun, so that the light rays are parallel from S. When they enter rain drops E and F, the light changes direction. It then reflects from their furthest surface, and change direction again on the way out.

The rainbow forms when the angle between the sun, the rain and you is in the range of 40-42 degrees. And so, rainbows are always arcs of a circle.

The colours can be explained with the additional information that sunlight is composed of lots of colours that refract by varying amounts. The red reflects least and purple the most. This means that red is on the outside of the rainbow, and purple on the inside. The colours of the spectrum are, in order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.

The secondary rainbow (above the main rainbow) is only sometimes seen. This is because it is the consequence of two reflections and is sometimes too faint for the human eye to perceive. The two reflection, instead of one, reverse the colours. Red appears on the inside, and purple on the outside.

Compare this with the book covers above, and you hopefully understand my annoyance.


The pedagogical judgement to halt the telling of this immoral fable would, in one generation, change the public perception of a rainbow.

And if you think we might lose it as a symbol of hope, consider how this can be retained in one simple line:

The sun might be bright and beautiful, but turn around to face the rain, and you might just see a rainbow.