No, the text of Genesis 6-9 paints a pretty clear picture of the universal nature of the flood. It is the wrongheaded insistence that the story must be historical in some way – however tenuous that connection might be – that has been forced onto the text. The debate over inerrancy has muddied the waters.
Haha. Not book-length. Just a few chapters. I do happen to be working through these issues at the moment, but the heavy lifting has already been done by Middleton and Walton.
Before getting into that, a quick digression. Have you ever taken a close look at the substance of God’s curses in Gen. 1-11?
The serpent will crawl on its belly. (3:14)
Enmity between offspring of woman and snake. (3:15)
Woman will experience pain in childbirth. (3:16)
Man will dominate woman. (3:16)
Man must do painful work for his food. (3:17)
The ground will produce thorns and thistles (3:18)
Man will eat plants of the field (3:18)
Man will return to the ground in death (3:19)
Man is barred from the garden of God’s presence. (3:22-24)
Man cannot live forever. (3:22-24)
In the aftermath of the Flood, we also find these changes that don’t fall into the category of “curses”:
Fear of man among other creatures (9:2)
Everything will be food for man (9:3)
The rainbow is given as a sign (9:13)
Humanity was divided and scattered into nations (11:8)
Human language was divided and confused (11:9)
All of these things are the “natural” conditions of mankind. Pain in childbirth is the result of bipedalism and brain evolution. (Narrower pelvis + larger head = greater difficulty and pain in childbirth for humans vs. other primates.) Even the one possible exception – being barred from the Garden – explains the hiddenness of God. This is exactly what an etiological myth does; it explains how we got to “here” from “there.” The genre of Genesis 1-11, as much as evangelicals hate the term, is etiological myth.
At this point, the question becomes: How is this myth, Gen. 1-11, different from Mesopotamian myths? Skipping all the details and coming right to the point, the mythology of all the surrounding cultures is basically propaganda in support of existing social structures. The gods created mankind to serve their needs for food and shelter (sacrifices and temples). The king is the gods’ representative on earth and is responsible for all cultural advances, especially the building of cities and temples and the maintenance of aqueducts/agriculture.
Genesis, on the other hand, subverts the Mesopotamian mythology of empire and exploitation and turns it on its head. Genesis says that God did not create by violence, but by his spoken word. Genesis asserts that all people – male and female – are created in God’s image, and while the Fall may have perverted God’s purpose for us and infected human culture with sin, it is ordinary people, not kings, who found cities and advance the culture in Genesis 5. The genealogies of early Genesis are not filled with kings, a la the Sumerian King lists, but ordinary men and women. This egalitarian portrait of imago Dei in Genesis is what Middleton calls “the liberating image.”
In Middleton’s analysis of Gen. 1-11, he sees it functioning “to recontextualize Israel’s core theological and ethical traditions in terms of universal human history,” and “the categories for this recontextualization are taken precisely from these Mesopotamian traditions.”
Thus, what we see after “the fall” in Gen. 4-11 is a prophetic/symbolic representation of the progress of sin and culture. The story culminates with the tower of Babel, which is a critique of the concentration of power – economic, political, and religious – in the hands of kings and priests, who in turn use that power to exploit the mass of humanity in the service of the gods.
Now, lest anyone accuse Israel of judging other cultures from its own “objective” standard, the nation’s prophets critiqued their own culture by the same standards. This is Israel’s distinctiveness. In all other cultures, their religious literature serves as propaganda to justify “the system.” Only in Israel do you find the prophets criticizing kings, priests, and even the temple itself. And what is the focus of their complaints? You already know – idolatry and exploitation of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.