Much of the recent discussion in the comment threads has revolved around the nature of the Genesis narratives and their purpose. In this admittedly off-the-cuff post, I would like to clarify my own take on this crucial issue.
The instructional objective of the Torah is essentially twofold. First and foremost, the Torah provides us with a worldview, an outlook on the Universe, the human condition, and the values that should guide our lives. In his commentary on the Humash, the famous Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno refers to this aspect of the Torah's teaching as "heleq haiyuni", the intellectual component.
Second, the Torah offers a program of mitsvot, the observance of which is based upon that worldview and the goal of which is to implement the values that derive from that worldview. The Seforno calls this the "heleq hamaasi", or practical component.
When it comes to the intellectual component of the Torah's instruction, the vehicle of choice is the story. Stories are inherently engaging and are accessible to human beings at pretty much any level of cognitive and moral development. We often revisit literature later in life and discover dimensions of depth and nuance we never noticed when we studied it in our youth. Moreover, not infrequently, aspects of the plot, drama or message of a story that appeared most significant to us previously may, upon a fresh reading, fade in comparison to other elements that capture our more mature attention.
The Torah opens with a series of stories that present us with four processes of tremendous importance to its purpose: The Creation of the Universe, the Creation/Emergence of Man, the Creation of Society and the Creation of Israel.
The creation of the Universe is described in order to establish that the Universe is a lawful, harmonious product of the will of a transcendent God who put it into motion.
The creation of Man is explored in order to enlighten us as to the peculiarities of the human condition - being a part of the natural world yet capable of transcending our natural drives, possessing biological instincts as well as an intellect, struggling both with our environments and within ourselves. Unlike the elegance and harmony reflected in the cosmos, the human realm is messily complicated, and the challenges that face Man, with his unique combination of heavenly and earthly characteristics, are daunting.
Individual human beings living in isolation from one another, each man fending for himself, is a chaotic state of existence. Indeed, this circumstance eventually spirals out of control and leads to the Mabul, or Flood, which yields a new kind of "Adam" in the person of Noah. Without entering into the details of Noah's life, what follows from him is a new phenomenon altogether - society - replete with kings, cultures, languages, etc. Society and its lawfulness are necessary to keep the pre-Flood anarchy from rearing its ugly head once again.
Hence, the "new order" - human beings living not as individuals but as members of a state or community - preserves the essential civilization of humanity and prevents it from sinking so low as to lose all sense of conscience or morality. Seventy nations, each with its own identity, coalesce and become established.
Nevertheless, the compromise inherent in societal structure has its downsides as well. Being part of a community means sacrificing a measure of intellectual freedom and independence, and makes one vulnerable to "groupthink". The story of the Tower of Bavel teaches us that a united humanity is a dangerous thing for this very reason.
Having a multiplicity of languages and cultures is a benefit because it does not allow any one human vision of life to dominate all others and achieve "absolute" status. The mere fact that we know our culture is Western culture, for example, as opposed to Eastern, means that we recognize that many of our judgments, opinions, attitudes and mores are conditioned by our participation in a specific human community and are not universal or inviolable. This keeps our minds open to new ideas and fresh possibilities at all times.
This very flexibility is what leads to the next "development" in Genesis - the emergence of Avraham. Avraham comes on the scene in a world very different from the one observed by Adam or even Noah - a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural human world with a proliferation of customs, languages and gods.
Ironically, society, which serves an important global function of maintaining lawfulness and keeping civilization afloat, is an impediment to Avraham's development as an individual. In order to actualize his potential, Avraham must break away from the very structure of human community that Noah initiated for the good of mankind and that took so many years to become fully established.
The difference in the case of Avraham, however, is his purpose. He separates in order to unify, he tears away in order to build. An Adam-like figure in many respects, Avraham is fiercely independent intellectually, and single-handedly rose above the influences of his parents and peers to discover Monotheism in all of its glory.
On the other hand, Avraham is the successor of Noah - he is a builder who intends not to live apart from society but to establish a new and unique kind of society. Unlike the society of Noah, however, which was founded on the expediency of cooperative living, Avraham's community would be a covenantal community, a nation founded on its relationship with and responsibility to the Creator.
Just as Noah's labor led to his descendants' creation of seventy nations, so too Avraham's vision and self-sacrifice were the unifying force that made a nation out of his seventy descendants. Just as the seventy nations of Noah provided a model of unity in diversity - their common human needs bound them together even as cultural differences distinguished between them - so too did the seventy descendants of Avraham, each with his own unique character and personality, bind themselves to one another through their common understanding of God and sense of purpose.
In short, the emergence of the Jewish nation is Hashem's "third try" at bringing humanity into line with His plan. First Adam, the individual qua individual, failed because of his susceptibility to egoistic and hedonistic temptations.
Secondly Noah, the community man par excellence, failed because the seventy communities he spawned became instruments of human power rather than vessels dedicated to the service of God.
Finally, Avraham the individual community-builder, begat seventy individuals dedicated to God, each of whom played a part in the formation of a remarkable nation that was chosen to be a source of wisdom and guidance to all other nations on Earth.
As we can see, then, the narrative structure of the beginning of Genesis - sketched very briefly here - is the platform upon which the entire Torah rests. Obviously, each component here could be the subject of dozens of posts fleshing out its details and the richness of its nuance, but I felt it was important to lay out the basic framework for us to consider moving forward.