On Monday, July 13, we met and discussed common objections to Genesis 2. I had basically prepared to answer the common charge that Genesis 1 and 2 are conflicting, contradictory creation accounts. In particular, the seeming order of events in verses 5-9 conflict, as it appears from Genesis 2 that God creates man before the plants. Additionally, some translations seem to say that God creates Adam before He creates animals. Today, I'll talk about the first conflict.
But before I discuss this conflict directly, it is important to note the focus of the chapter. While Genesis 1 seems to be primarily an account of the physical creation, and how God is mighty in His creative acts, Genesis 2 focuses primarily on the creation of humans and our relationship with God and with the rest of creation. In other words, attempting to glean details about the physical creation from Genesis 2 is almost silly when there is an entire chapter devoted to it in Genesis 1. Furthermore, as the focus is on Adam's relationship with God and the rest of creation, any details about the physical creation should be seen as the necessary background for understanding this context.
Even so, Genesis 2:5-9 does seem to be confusing. The passage seems to say, "When no plant had yet come up on the earth, ...God created Adam." Is it really claiming that God created Adam before He created plants? One of the misunderstandings comes from the fact that the word often translated as "earth" in this passage can also be translated as "land". Furthermore, it could be talking about a specific piece of land, or geographical area. So it need not mean that no plant had ever come up on the whole face of the earth. It is more likely saying that in a certain geographical area, no plant had sprung up (perhaps even that year) because the rainy season had not come yet, and this was before man was around to do artificial irrigation. So there were no crops yet come up in the land.
I don't think this is over-interpreting. Remember, this story was told from the standpoint of a highly agricultural people. Further support of this idea comes from Genesis 2:8-9, which then tells us what specific piece of land we may be talking about: Eden.
So, Genesis 2:5-9 could be read as following. At some point in time, there was no vegetation to speak of in the area which was to become Eden. That was because the rains had not yet come that year, and man wasn't around yet to do irrigation of the fields. At this point, the rains (or mist) began to come, and God created the first man: Adam. God also planted a garden in this piece of land, which was to be called Eden. The garden began to grow because the rains had just started coming. And God put Adam into the garden in order to tend it (otherwise, it would grow out of control).
Even if this is reading too much into the account, the point is that we must take the whole passage into context. The sentences in verses 5-7 are only meant to be understood in the context of the passage as a whole. The entire description of the lack of "shrubs of the field", etc, is meant to give us a background as to what the land looked like outside of the context of Eden. Then, the setting shifts to Eden and we are told Adam is to work the garden, such that the garden continues to grow and look beautiful, in contrast to what the land could look like without the garden and without man to tend it.
This perspective also harmonizes with Genesis 3, in which Adam and Eve sin against God. In that chapter, we are told that the ground is "cursed, because of you [Adam]." In our sinful state, our attempts to tend the land, such as Eden, will be less fruitful. So we have the contrast of what the land looked like before Eden, and what we can expect it to become like as a result of our misuse of the land after man became sinful.