As a reader, I enjoy when I learn the origin of a particular symbol. Since I write, I like to learn these things so when I use one, I understand the history of the symbol. For example, when I was coming out and learning my gay history, I had no idea about the significance behind the pink triangle that represents homosexuality—I figured it was “just a symbol” and gays liked pink. I was 21. Turns out that the pink triangle was used by the Nazis in the concentration camps to mark the rounded-up homosexuals. The Jews were assigned yellow stars, the gays pink triangles. A symbol of torture and repression was co-opted for a symbol of strength and solidarity.
The bible is ripe with these types of symbols, and Genesis is no exception.
First, the dove and the olive branch.
As Noah coasts the flood waters, he sent out birds to explore and determine if the flood waters were receding. He starts with a raven. When he gets to a dove, later, this bird returns clutching an olive branch, which is evidence to Noah that life—in the form of vegetation—is returning. That is why this bird and the olive branch is a symbol of peace.
And here I thought the dove was used because it seems so gentle and passive. I wonder how many people have used this symbol without knowing its Biblical origin.
Second, the rainbow.
So apparently the rainbow is a symbol that God created in order to let Noah know that he would keep his promise to him to never flood the planet again. When he sees a rainbow, he should rejoice, for the moisture in the air is not an early indicator of terrible rain to come.
My first reaction to this was an eye roll: really, God created rainbows? Clearly we know now that rainbows are created through refraction. Second, since the rainbow flag was adopted as a symbol of the gay community, one that expresses the diversity within our ranks, I assume that this is one of the reasons we have earned the ire of Bible devotees: we stole one of their beloved symbols from Genesis.
And here I thought we’d lifted it from the Grateful Dead.