Did Moses expect you and I to disregard the historicity of Genesis 1 by purposefully changing the order of creation in Genesis 2? That is the assumption that Tim Keller believes makes the “strongest argument” that the author of Genesis 1 did not want to be taken literally. The predominant weight of that assumption is placed on his interpretation of Genesis 2:5. The problem isn’t only the assumption; it’s the inevitable conclusions that result from it. One who would have to essentially say that Genesis 2:5 is the reader’s clue that everything said in Genesis 1 that contradicts the ‘natural order’ is to be jettisoned. So even though God created light on Day 1 before He created the sun, moon, and stars on Day 4, that does not mean what is says; and even though God created plant life on Day 3 before He created the sun, moon, and stars on Day 4, that too does not mean what is says. That amount of weight on a contested interpretation of Genesis 2:5 is simply untenable.
So, having written about how the opening two chapters of Genesis as being complementary and not contradictory, and how a progressive creationist view would mean that Moses did not simply write ‘exalted poetry’ in Genesis 1 but misleading, inaccurate poetry with specific time designations that are false, we will direct our attention to answering the question – what about Genesis 2:5?
Interpreting the Text
4 This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; 6 but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground. (Gen. 2:4-6)
The language of verse four suggests that Moses is transitioning from providing a macro account of God’s creative work in Genesis 1-2:3 to a more specific aspect of His creative work; namely, the formation of man and woman, their relationship to God, creation and each other, and their placement in the Garden of Eden. Numerous times in the Book of Genesis we find sections introduced by the Hebrew word toledoth. The word toledoth is often translated as “generations” and is typically used to outline a genealogical line (Gen. 5:1; 6:9; 10:1,32; 11:10,27; 25:12, 19; 36: 1,9; 37:2) but since the heavens and the earth do not reproduce some translations render the word in Genesis 2:4 as “history” or “account.”
The transition may also be hinted at in two other occurrences in verse four: (1) Whereas in chapter one God was referred to as Elohim, here, in Genesis 2:4, we see that the covenant name of God is used – Yahweh, perhaps introducing the focus of God’s relationship to man and man’s relationship to God; and (2) while the beginning of verse four speaks of the history of “the heavens and the earth” the latter part of the verse uses the expression, “the earth and the heavens”. Some suggest that arrangement of language provides the reader with a clue that verse four is a chiasm with the creation of man at the center – thus, literarily intimating the coming attention to specific aspects of day six; and, the fact that the expression “the heavens and the earth” is inverted at the end of verse four is perhaps intended to draw the reader’s attention from the creation of the cosmos to a specific aspect of God’s creative work on earth.
The Issue At Hand
While a brief examination of the toledoth of verse four helps provide context to what we read in subsequent verses, the issue, however, doesn’t arise from the toledoth, but from what follows it. When Moses wrote, “before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown (Gen. 2:5)” some would say that sounds like a contradiction of Genesis 1:11 where we are told that on day three God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them (NASB)…” Both the critic and the genuinely curious might say – ‘Well, it sounds like the plants didn’t grow until some time after rain was present and until man was present to till the ground.’
Is that the case? Does Genesis 2:5 “correct” a literal understanding of Day 3 and mean that no vegetation was anywhere to be found on earth before both man and rain were present?
First, before analyzing the text, let’s first identify that such an interpretation has its own slew of issues. If Genesis 2:5 is taken to mean the entire earth (an exegetical possibility), according to this view that means there were no plants on earth before man got to them to tend them and before rain fell on them. And even though the presence of the mist, or perhaps better-understood “stream”, of verse six would provide watering in the absence of rain, it still does not account for the absence of man. If Genesis 2:5 is to be understood as an explanatory note that corrects the possible misunderstanding of Genesis 1:11 it means that no plants ever existed anywhere before both water and man got to them. This would contradict both the Scriptural account and the natural order we know today. Concerning the former, shortly after verse five we are told:
8 The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:8-9)
This is important to note because: (a) God planted a garden and then placed the man that He formed in it, and (b) there is no hint that the trees in the garden did not grow until the natural process took place over time and after men planted it, tilled the ground, etc.; rather, the text says that God “made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food (vs.9a)”, a point also implied in Genesis 1:29-30 – vegetation, seeds, fruits, and trees, were already present for man when God made man. So again, I think there is a big problem with saying that Genesis 2:5 means that what God said on Day 3 didn’t happen, as though no plants would not grow until man was formed, rain came, and the ground was tilled. Furthermore, in an attempt to argue for ‘a natural order of creation’ this view of Genesis 2:5 contradicts nature as we understand it because while some plants require cultivation there are many plants that do not.
A Better Approach
So what, then, is the proper way to interpret Genesis 2:5? I think it is to simply say that God was speaking about particular kinds of plants; namely, to use renderings from the NASB: the “shrub of the field” and “the plant of the field.” Now these plants were either absent because they are plants that specifically require man’s cultivation and some form of irrigation, unlike all the vegetation that God created on Day 3 (Gen. 1:11-12) and the trees that comprised the garden (Gen. 2:8-10), or they were plants that were not present in the pre-fall world but became known to humanity after the fall. Concerning the latter, the same expression “plant of the field” (Heb. esev hassadeh) is used in both Genesis 2:5 and Genesis 3:18, as though to indicate – this “eseb of the field” became a part of man’s diet after the fall. Prior to the fall man had the freedom to eat freely from any tree (Gen. 2:16) but after the fall he would eat the “plant [eseb] of the field (Gen. 2:5: 3:18), i.e. any cultivated grain out of which you make bread.
And as concerns the “shrub of the field”, among all the words used to describe the vegetation that God created on Day 3 (Gen. 1:11-12) the word for “shrub” [Heb. siah] was not used. Immediately, then, we can say that the “shrub [siah] of the field” is textually distinct from the things created on Day 3. Like the thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:18a) and “plant of the field”, the ‘siah of the field’, which may even be synonymous with the aforementioned thorns and thistles, appears to have been absent pre-fall and present post-fall.
So then, according to this view, Genesis 2:5 is not saying that there weren’t any plants on earth before man was present to till the ground and before rain came; rather, it is saying that the specific plants that came as a result of man’s post-fall tilling and aerial irrigation were not present pre-fall. Part of what’s happening, then, in Genesis 2:5 is that the text is reminding of you of the pre-fall environment of the world and preparing for you for post fall narrative to come.
 Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos, accessed January 10, 2017, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf, 4.