A Bow Set in a Cloud: Genesis 9:12–17

bow set in cloud (2)

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b) Gen 9:12–17: God promised Noah and his descendants to never again send such a devastating flood upon the earth (Gen 9:8–11).[1]

Yet, the Lord gave another speech in which he ratified that oath with a sign.[2]

Moses reported, “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between me and you and every living being which [is] with you for eternal generations.’”

In Hebrew, a “sign” (oth) consists of an item, an experience, or a ceremony which enables people to perceive or remember that something is true.[3]

Signs can include leather boxes containing Old Testament (OT) verses which people strapped to their arms or foreheads, miracles, significant events which occurred after having been foretold, or practices which set Israel apart from others (Deut 6:8, 22; Exod 3:12; Exod 31:13).[4]

At critical junctures of human history, the Lord gave the rainbow, circumcision, and the Sabbath each as a sign of a covenant which he established (Gen 17:9–13; Exod 31:16–17).[5]

Christians observe a sign of the new covenant by participating in the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20).[6]

Typically, signs of the covenant remind those who participate in them of God’s presence and their resulting obligations.[7]



To Noah and all his descendants, God said, “My bow (qesheth) I have set in a cloud, and it will be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth.”

The Hebrew language does not distinguish between a rainbow and an archer’s bow.[8]

Therefore, a major controversy has developed among OT scholars concerning whether this verse is alluding to Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythologies.

Even the critically acclaimed Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament provides two competing entries without reaching a definitive conclusion.[9]



People in the ANE often depicted their gods using a bow and arrows to vanquish their foes.

According to the Akkadian creation epic Enuma Elish, Marduk defeated the evil water goddess Tiamat.

Using a word related to the Hebrew verb for “separated” (badhal) (Cf. Gen 1:6–7), it says:

Then the lord [Marduk] paused to view [Tiamat’s] dead body, that he might divide the monster and do artful works. He split her like a shellfish into two parts. Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky, pulled down the bar and posted guards. He bade them to allow not her waters to escape…

All the gods apportioned the stations of heaven and earth…The seven gods of destiny set up the three hundred [in heaven].

Enlil raised the bow, his weapon, and laid (it) before them. The gods, his fathers, saw the net he had made. When they beheld the bow, how skillful its shape, his fathers praised the work he had wrought.

Raising (it), Anu spoke up in the Assembly of the gods, as he kissed the bow, “This is my daughter!” He named the names of the bow as follows: “Longwood is the first, the second is Accurate; its third name is Bow-Star, in heaven I have made it shine.”[10]

People in the ANE believed that constellations shaped like a bow signified the gods’ anger.[11]



An Assyrian relief depicts the god Assur with his bow upturned in a gesture of peace.[12]

Another shows two hands of a god extending from the clouds,[13] with one lifted in blessing and another grasping an inverted bow.[14]

These gods laid aside their divine wrath and turned their bows away from humanity.[15]

Old Testament texts also describe Yahweh as a warrior who wields a bow and arrows against his enemies (Deut 32:22–23, 42–43; Ps 18:13–15; Hab 3:8–12).[16]

While some scholars acknowledge the familiarity of Moses’ original audience with divine archers, they assert that this tradition does not inform our understanding of the rainbow.[17]

Others contend that the ANE perspective of a weapon in a non-threatening position fits perfectly with God’s promise to never again inflict such destruction upon the earth.[18]

Experts do agree that a rainbow reflects the cessation of the Lord’s enmity directed toward humanity (Gen 6:5–7).[19]

Against the backdrop of clouds—which had previously wrought such great destruction—God placed a sign of mercy.[20]



However, this does not necessarily indicate that rainbows did not exist prior to the flood.[21]

John Calvin considered such a notion “frivolous.”[22]

God granted theological significance to a natural sign,[23]consecrating what had been a routine occurrence.[24]

The Lord also did that with circumcision.[25] He adopted an already ancient practice as a sign of his covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 17:9–10).[26]



God said, “And it shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth and the bow will be seen in the cloud, then I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and all living beings of flesh. And it shall never again happen that the waters shall become a flood to destroy all flesh. And when the bow is in the cloud, then I will see it to remember an eternal covenant between God and all living beings of flesh which are upon the earth.”

Whenever a rainbow emerges through the clouds, it reminds the Lord of his covenant with Noah.[27] This enables him to overlook human depravity.[28]

God’s response to seeing a sign conforms to what Moses’ original audience experienced only a year earlier, when he passed over every home with blood above the door (Exod 12:12–13).[29]

The Hebrew word “remember” (zakhar) does not necessarily mean that something has been forgotten (Cf. Gen 8:1).[30]

Instead, it reinforces one’s commitment to a covenant (Lev 26:45; Ps 74:2; Jer 14:20–21).[31]

God is simultaneously omniscient and involved in the care of those dwelling on the earth.[32]



In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood hero heard a goddess declare that she would use her necklace as a sign to remind her of the flood:

The gods smelled the savor. The gods smelled the sweet savor. The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer.

When at length as the great goddess arrived, she lifted up the great jewels which [the god] Anu had fashioned to her liking, “Ye gods here, as surely as this lapis upon my neck I shall not forget, I shall be mindful of these days, forgetting (them) never.[33]

Much as the Lord employs the rainbow, the goddess vowed to use her necklace as a sign to remind her of the flood.[34]



God’s covenant with Noah concluded with a summary statement concerning the rainbow. “And God said to Noah, ‘This [is] the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh which is upon the earth.’”

Throughout the pronouncement of this covenant, the Lord never gave Noah any commands to obey. It was strictly unilateral.[35]

God’s covenant with Noah is the first of several such pacts which the Lord has made throughout redemptive history.

Ultimately, they shall culminate with the renewal of all creation when he releases the earth from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:19–23). With each covenant which God enacts, we come one step closer to his plan for world-wide blessing (Rev 21:1–5).[36]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Gen 9:12–17. How long shall this covenant continue? With whom did the Lord make it? Do you think the Ancient Near Eastern concept of a god’s upturned bow corresponds to the sign of the rainbow?  Why or why not? How can God remember something when he is omniscient? What encouragement does this passage give to you?







Go to The World Destroyed by Water (2 Pet 3:5–6)

[Related posts include God Separates the Waters (Gen 1:6–8); God Grieves (Gen 6:5–6); Wiping Out Everyone (Gen 6:7); The End Was Near (Gen 6:13); A Deluge to Ruin All Flesh (Gen 6:17); God Establishes a Covenant (Gen 6:18); God Remembered Noah (Gen 8:1); Noah’s Grateful Response (Gen 8:20); A Rest-Inducing Aroma (Gen 8:21); A Promise of Stability (Gen 8:22); A Renewed Mandate (Gen 9:1); Every Moving Living Thing (Gen 9:2–4); Blood for Blood (Gen 9:5–7); A Covenant with All Living Things (Gen 9:8–11); Creation’s Eager Expectation (Rom 8:19); Subjected to Futility (Rom 8:20); Set Free from the Slavery of Corruption (Rom 8:21–22); The World Destroyed by Water (2 Pet 3:5–6); A Return to Paradise (Rev 22:1–5, 20); Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Ancient Literature; and Author and Date of Genesis]

[Click here to go to Chapter 9: A Covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:20–9:17)]


[1]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 316.

[2]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 194.

[3]F. J. Helfmeyer, “אוֹת” (oth), TDOT 1:167–88, 170.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 195.

[5]Helfmeyer, “אוֹת” (oth), TDOT 1:181–2.

[6]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 146.

[7]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 195.

[8]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 317.

[9]T. Kronholm and H.-J. Fabry, “קֶשֶׁת” (qesheth), TDOT 13:201–8, 206.

[10]“Enuma Elish (The Creation Epic),” ANET, 4.135–40, 6:79–90, 67, 69. Italics mine.

[11]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 146.

[12]Wikimedia Commons, “File: Ashur God.,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ashur_god.jpg.

[13]British Museum, “Broken Obelisk,” http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=269322001&objectId=277955&partId=1. Photos of this very important artifact are on this site.

[14]Walton, Genesis, 345.

[15]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 248.

[16]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 247.

[17]Kronholm, “קֶשֶׁת” (qesheth), TDOT 13: 206.

[18]Fabry, “קֶשֶׁת” (qesheth), TDOT 13: 206.

[19]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 317.

[20]Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, 67.

[21]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 196.

[22]Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 299, https://archive.org/stream/commentariesonfi01calvuoft#page/298/mode/2up.

[23]Walton, Genesis, 345.

[24]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 146.

[25]Walton, Genesis, 345.

[26]Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, 66–7.

[27]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 196.

[28]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 147.

[29]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 319.

[30]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 140.

[31]H. Eising, “זָכַר” (zakhar), TDOT 4:70–82, 70.

[32]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 146.

[33]E. A. Speiser, trans., “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, 11:159–65, 95.

[34]Walton, Genesis, 345.

[35]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 319.

[36]Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, 76.