Most of the time, the first questions people seem to want to deal with when they work with the story of Noah have to do with its accuracy -- is it true? Did it happen?
There's not a lot of geological evidence for a flood that covered the whole globe, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's nothing to it. When the folks retelling these stories and putting them together said "the whole world," they meant a pretty limited slice of it compared to what we know. They didn't travel far and had limited knowledge of just a few areas -- they had no clue about North and South America or Antarctica or Australia, for example.
And there are possible disasters that could have covered their part of the Middle East with water in the way that Noah's story describes. We're still telling the story of Noah some 3,500 years after it was collected into Genesis -- perhaps it goes back at least that long as an oral tradition? If so, we're coming up close to the end of the Ice Age and in many places, melting glaciers created huge inland seas that flooded low-lying areas when they finally surged back to the oceans.
There's also some geological evidence that meteors may have struck the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean Sea, or both. Large rocks dropped in water make ripples the same way small rocks do, but we call them tidal waves or tsunamis. They could have flooded the entire region as water surged out of the seas onto the land, and the superheated meteors would have created steam that came back to the earth as torrential rains lasting for weeks. Greek legend tells of Deucalion, who along with his family was saved from a flood in a large boat. A meteor in the Mediterranean would have flooded low-lying Greece as well as the area where Noah was said to live.
But to be honest, the historical character of the flood isn't the most interesting part of the story for me. Even if we found out exactly what happened it wouldn't affect me all that much, because according to God's own promise to Noah in the rainbow, such a thing will not happen again.
If we say this is a story of Noah saving the animals, we miss the point. But if we see this story as one of God cleansing a corrupt world, we can find some more useful handles to use to learn something from Noah for our own lives.
The word translated as "corrupt" is like the word used for spoiled when it refers to food gone bad. The world has gone from being good as God made it to fallen and now to corrupt. It needs cleansed, and God decides to wash the corruption away from the world. But Noah is not corrupt; we're told he walks with God. Since it would not be fair to wipe out Noah too, God spares him and uses him to spare the animals that can help repopulate creation after its cleansing.
In the church, you may have heard people use that same kind of cleansing language when they talk about baptism. Cleansing is one of the important symbols we attach to baptism, as we say it's a sign God washes us free from our sin the way water washes things clean.
It's possible to see the creation story, from the beginning through Noah, as a model of our own condition. We are created "good" by God, but our own selfishness and desires lead us away from following God as the man and the woman were led to try the fruit. That sin, now present in our lives, will harm not only us but those around us as Cain's sin brought about Abel's death. The only way to erase this corruption is God's cleansing grace -- we can't "uncorrupt" ourselves. We require that kind of all-encompassing cleansing in order to be made right with God once again.
In the midst of our corruption, though, there's a remnant of the image of God we were all born with, in which we were all created. Something about what God wanted us to be is still inside us, able to grow within us and recreate us completely in that image. But that something must be saved from the corruption around it and that can only happen through the work of God, just as Noah survived the flood only though hearing and following God's direction.
There's an important difference between the flood story and our story, of course. In the flood story, the waters rose up and came down without warning or notice. The earth didn't know it was to be cleansed or even recognize that cleansing was needed. But we do know. We can come to the place where we understand we need God's cleansing spirit in our lives or else we will never be clean and never be what God created us to be. And we can ask for that cleansing, trusting that God, having once begun his work will complete it and we too will one day greet a renewed world as renewed sons and daughters of God, made clean and whole by his grace.