In the latest issue of Tradition (42:3, Fall 2009), there is an article by Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky titled "A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man" (link). In my brief description of the article when the journal was published, I wrote (link):
Explaining and defending the approach that the biblical flood story was intended as a response to pagan myths. No new ground is broken but the article is important because it fleshes out the arguments.There are two ways of reading a text non-literally: 1) the story describes an actual event but in describing it the text uses language that was not intended to be taken literally, 2) the entire story did not actually occur and the text should be read as an allegory. Note that according to both approaches the text is entirely true but not in its literal meaning. For the first approach, think of God redeeming the Jews from Egypt with an outstretched arm, which is true but not literally. For the second, think of a parable which is entirely true when understood as representing abstract ideas.
Which of these two approaches does Dr. Wolowelsky take? Note that while the second may seem radical, it has support within the sources (see this post: link). Here is the key passage in Dr. Wolowelsky's article:
Needless to say, this approach no more suggests that there was no catastrophic flood than does the position that God has no physical limb claim that “He took us out with a mighty arm” is false and that we were never taken out of Egyptian slavery. It has no relevance to the secular debate on the historicity of the Bible. We are not talking about whether the Flood happened but the literary devices the Torah used to describe it.In private correspondence, Dr. Wolowelsky confirmed to me that he was in no way suggesting that a catastrophic flood had not actually taken place -- the flood story is true but was written in language that has additional significance.
Perhaps then my original description should have been:
Explaining and defending the approach that the biblical flood story was written in a way so as to undermine then-current pagan myths to which the emerging Jewish nation was exposed. No new ground is broken but the article is important because it fleshes out the arguments.