Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the book of Genesis began life as a series of orally transmitted stories which were turned into literary form relatively late in the piece. It is possible that the first eleven chapters, in particular, consist of orginally unconnected material, with the genealogies serving as a literary device to tie them together.
If this is true, then it is possible to see that there is not one but four stories of the Fall in Genesis. There is the one we usually associate with it, found in Genesis 2 and 3. Then there are the stories of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), the Great Flood (Genesis 6-8) and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). All four stories feature the same core elements - humans fail to live up to God's standard, God intervenes to punish them or prevent them from doing more harm, and there is a form of redemption at the end. I'll talk about Cain and Abel and Babel later, but first the Flood.
Two things surprise me about this story. The first is that it doesn't give biblical literalists a lot more trouble. Of course I've heard the rather unconvincing explanations about oceanic fossils on mountaintops and geological features caused by wave action (all easily refuted in the light of what has been discovered about geology and paleontology in the 200 years since such claims were last taken seriously by scientists) but the biggest killer for me is how the creatures managed to survive afterwards. Even assuming the herbivores could find enough to eat in the devastated landscape, they would all be eaten by the carnivores in the first few weeks after which the carnivores would starve and the earth would be left to the cockroaches and cane toads.
But enough pot-shots at easy targets. A more interesting surprise is that this story is an incredibly popular children's tale. Of course boats and cute animals do provide a lot of opportunities for illustrators, but this is the darkest of the Fall stories. Here's how it begins in Chapter 6.
5 The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
It's easy for the cute animals to blind us to the scale of destruction. Whereas in the Adam and Eve story there are only two humans, and they are the only ones punished, here there are lots, and everyone gets it. Not only the humans (including presumably infants) but all the animals and birds, despite their innocence of human crime, are given the death sentence. The rest of the tale tells how it was done. The LORD inundates the earth with water, huge volumes of water, for 40 days. It takes 150 days to recede. All terrestrial life is wiped out, save for a small remnant - Noah and his family, and a breeding pair of each species of animal (plus a larger stock of domestic animals), sheltering in a huge boat the LORD has ordered Noah to build.
This is where it doesn't pay to be a literalist or to believe in inerrancy. A god who actually does this kind of destruction would be a monster. Explain that to your Sunday School class. This is one of those difficult stories, and Christians who don't struggle with it are just not paying attention.
I don't know the answer, but let me suggest a couple of things.
Firstly, stories of great floods are widespread around the globe, because flooding is pretty much universal. I can tell you from personal experience that it is extremely unpleasant and destructive, and something of this universal experience is translated and exaggerated in this story. It reminds us of how precarious our lives really are.
Secondly, the story is a classic warning tale. Noah sets a standard for human behaviour. It is not a moral standard - no morality is discussed in this story - it is a standard of fidelity. He obeys God in the building of the ark, but more importantly the first thing he does when he steps on dry land is build an altar, and make a sacrifice. This is how we should all act, it says.
Thirdly, the story contrasts an imagined past with a much better, safer present.
21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
22 “As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
Just as the LORD made clothes for Adam and Eve after the fall, so here he promises future protection to Noah's descendents. The readers of the story need not fear a repeat of such destruction, because God favours them and promises to care for them. This promise is open-ended. The rainbow is seen to this day as a symbol of hope, or new beginnings, of good times following bad. As we face the possibility of another ecological catastrophe, perhaps this story can give us hope.