See: God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (b)
Source Theory cannot explain to the satisfaction of modern scientific thinkers in what sense the text is true – literally, historically, and scientifically. Source Theory only helps us deal with some of the literal contradictions and inconsistencies by showing that there appears to be more than one literary source from which the final editor of the Bible drew.
As is noted in the reflections, even the ancient pre-scientific Christians of the 4th Century had difficulties with believing every literal details of the story. The Holy Bishop John Chrysostom in the 4th Century cautioned his flock against overly trying to rationalize about the text. He felt there are some things that do not make logical sense but we have to just accept them in order to get to the real purpose of the story which is to teach us both about the God who is the Savior of the world, and the coming day of Judgment. Theodoret of Cyrus, a bishop of the Antiochian tradition a generation after Chrysostom, notes at several points in his commentaries that interpreting scriptures in different ways is completely acceptable when the issue is not about the doctrine of the Trinity. He sees no harm to religion occurring in instances where different interpretations can be determined, and even allows for the readers of the text themselves to determine which interpretation seems closer to the truth to them.
None of this is to say that it is wrong to believe the texts are literally true. My reflections however do not rely on a literal interpretation of the texts to point out their eternal truths. However, I will read the texts literally in that I will deal with each and every word of the text and will not gloss over the fact that the literalist reading presents us with certain contradictions in the text itself. A literal reading of the text is one way to approach the text, but the literal reading of the text is not even the primary way that the New Testament writers read and understood the Old Testament texts. The reflections point out how the New Testament made use of these Old Testament stories – as allegory, as prophecy, as typology, and as a moral teaching.
While the Source theory helps us to understand the inconsistencies within Genesis 6-9 by unwinding the two stories which were woven together, both stories are completely monotheistic in their message. There is only one God who is the main actor in either story, and both stories are about this same one God whether He is referred to by Name (YHWH, the Lord) or simply as God. But different people were inspired to write differently reflecting their own understandings of God the LORD. This is part of the beauty of inspiration. God is so different than any one mind can imagine or grasp. And so God reveals Himself in story and narration, in figurative images, to help us realize the limits of our ability to describe the incomprehensible God. The story of the Great Flood is theology in narrative form – it is both theology and story and we should not lose sight of that fact. God did not choose to reveal Himself through a dogmatics textbook. While reading the narrative of the flood leads us to some clear ideas of doctrine and dogma about God, the text is sacred in that it points beyond itself to the truth about God. In the New Testament, the story of the Flood is more important for offering us a way to approach the coming future than it is for teaching us about past history. The story is referred to in order to exhort us to prepare for the future rather than to get us to focus on the past.
Having more than one story forces us to think beyond the plain sense of the Scriptures and to seek out the deeper meaning which God chooses to reveal to us in more than one way. We do not have to explain the differences in the stories, but we must come to understand the depth of their revelation. As St. John Chrysostom said, “Pay precise attention, however: the reading out of the Scriptures is the opening of the heavens.” Orthodox in later generations will also refer to icons as windows into heaven. Obviously the revelation of God, in whatever form it comes to us – scriptural or iconic — gives us a view into heaven itself.
Remember, deciding to read the Scriptures literally means making literalism your method for interpreting the text. Reading the text literally will force the literalist to interpret the text so that the 40 days of the flood do not contradict the 150 and 340 days of the flood also mentioned in the text. The literalist must interpret what it means that God “came down” to Ba’bel to see the tower – couldn’t He see it from where He was? Is God near-sighted? Or is the text saying or implying something other than its plain meaning? Literalism is a form of interpretation of Scriptures, it is not the only way to read the text for its meaning and purpose.
Next: God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (d)