On Reality and Rainbows
After Noach and his family leave the ark, God speaks to him and renews His covenant with humankind. He also provides a symbol for that covenant. In Perek 9, pasuk 13 He says, “אֶת-קַשְׁתִּי, נָתַתִּי בֶּעָנָן; וְהָיְתָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ. “. This translates into English as “I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of covenant, between Me and the earth.”
The Ramban, in his commentary on the previous pasuk, points out that a simple reading indicates that the rainbow was invented at that moment and for that purpose. When God says, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you”, it is natural to assume that He was creating the rainbow then and there.
This cannot be the case, argues the Ramban. He writes, “We must perforce believe in the works of the Greeks, [whose philosophers claim] that the sun’s radiance combined with moisture in the air creates a rainbow naturally. For even in light in a water vessel will make the appearance of a rainbow.” In other words, according to the Ramban, he believes that the pasuk can be misread if one is unfamiliar with science.
Ramban argues that when you carefully look into the language you will see that the science is correct. The quote that we referred to earlier says, “I have set My rainbow". It does not read, “I will set my rainbow”, or even “I am setting my rainbow”. The use of past tense shows that the rainbow is a natural phenomenon that God built into existence during Creation. On that day, while communicating to Noach, God designated this beautiful natural event to be the symbol of His covenant with the earth. Many covenants have an object that is used as a sign to represent its continued existence.
Why did He specifically choose the rainbow as opposed to other existing phenomenon? Here the Ramban provides a suggestion. The rainbow, of course, looks like a bow that has no arrow. If seen as a bow, it appears to be pointing up and away from the earth. This makes it an ideal sign for a treaty of non-belligerence between God and humankind.
One could suggest an alternative reason for the choice of the rainbow as a sign for this covenant. The world was, after all, pretty wet. The rainbow was a present and obvious choice. Seeing one immediately brings the memory of Noach’s rainbow to the mind of anyone who learned the story as a child. The difference between these two answers is that the Ramban sees the rainbow as a symbol to represent the brit, and the other sees it as a sign to commemorate it.
Be that as it may, it is the Ramban’s understanding of the relationship between science and Torah which we should take to heart. Since the “author” of Creation is the author of the Torah, the Ramban felt forced to carefully reread the psukim when they seemed to contradict science. Religion tells us how to view reality in a moral and spiritual way. But to understand nature as it is, there is no tool clearer than science.