How can one believe a Bible that is full of contradictions?” is a question skeptics often ask, implying that one would be foolish to trust the Bible. One frequently cited example comes from the first two chapters of the Bible, which supposedly give contradictory accounts of Creation.
The debate is based on Genesis 2:4, 5: “When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens . . . no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground.” The problem, as the critics see it, is that Genesis 2:5 mentions four things that did not yet exist after the seventh day of Creation week:
- The “shrub of the field.”
- (2) The “plant of the field.”
- (3) Rain.
- (4) A “man to work the ground.”
Yet Genesis 1 says that three of these things were created during Creation week. Genesis 1 clearly states that God did create plants (items 1 and 2) and human beings (item 4) during Creation week. That’s one reason both scholars and skeptics believe Genesis 2 contradicts Genesis 1.
However, a careful examination of the Hebrew words in these verses tells a different story. Let’s start with the problem of the vegetation. Then we’ll talk about the problem of human beings.
Most scholars have assumed that the Hebrew words for vegetation, shrubs, and plants mean the same thing in both Genesis 1 and 2. However, the words are much different in the two chapters and they do not mean the same thing.
The shrub of the field
The word siah is translated “shrub” in Genesis 2:5 (NIV), and it appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible— twice in Genesis and once in Job. The contexts of both Genesis 21:15 and Job 30:4, 7 suggest that the word siah refers to a plant that is adapted to a desert environment and probably has thorns. But more specific evidence is given in the account of the fall of Adam and Eve, where the text specifically states that thorns and thistles appeared on the earth only after our first parents sinned (Genesis 3:18).
Israel has more than 70 species of spiny shrubs, which, while essential to the fragile ecosystems of desert regions, are generally classified by agriculturalists as obnoxious—not plants that a farmer of the ancient Near East would have chosen to cultivate in his garden. Nor would God have caused such plants to grow in Eden. To the contrary, the Bible says Eden was filled with all sorts of trees that were “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:9).
Thus, there’s a perfect harmony between Genesis 1 and 2 with respect to the “shrub” in Genesis 2:5. God made beautiful plants when He created the world, while thorny plants (NIV: “shrubs”) didn’t appear till after the Fall.
The plant of the field
The other botanical term in Genesis 2, ‘esev (“plant”), is fairly common in the Hebrew Bible, but it appears in the full expression “plant of the field” (Hebrew: ‘esev ha-sadeh) only in Genesis 2:5 and 3:17, 18.
In Genesis 3:18, these “plants of the field” are specifically designated as the food Adam would have to eat as a result of his sin, and only after “painful toil” and “the sweat of [his] brow.” Clearly, then, the “plant[s] of the field” mentioned in Genesis 2:5 are plants that could only be produced by the intensive labor with which Adam was burdened because of his fall into sin.
Genesis 3:19 says that these plants were used to make bread (translated “food” in the NIV), suggesting that the expression “plants of the field” may refer to grains such as wheat and barley. In the Middle East, the growing of these bread grains requires the “tilling of the ground,” another effect of Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:18, 19).
Taken together, then, the botanical terms “shrub of the field” and “plant of the field” in Genesis 2:5 encompass, not the entire plant kingdom as readers have assumed, but rather, those plants that a farmer in our imperfect world would be particularly concerned with: thorny weeds and food plants that require cultivation.
No man to till the ground
The necessity of man’s labor in the production of the “plant of the field” leads to the next item that did not yet exist in Eden in Genesis 2:5. The text also says that there was “no man to work the ground.” Again, some have assumed that this contradicts chapter 1, which describes the creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day of Creation.
However, again, this is an overly simplified reading of the verse that ignores the critical modifier “to till the ground.”
It’s important to note that when God created Adam and Eve, He didn’t say anything about their having to work the ground. Rather, they were given “every seed bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” for food. Nothing is said of deriving food from working the ground.”
The idea of Adam having to work the ground in order to obtain his food doesn’t come into view until after his fall. Then, because of his sin, he was told, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).
So Genesis 2:5 isn’t saying that human beings still didn’t exist after God had made the earth and heavens. Rather, it’s saying that sinful man, one having to work the ground for food, did not yet exist.
Garden and ground
Another significant point is that God’s original plan was for Adam and Eve to work in a garden (Genesis 2:8, 15), whereas after the Fall, Adam had to work the ground.
Our English word garden brings to mind neat rows of vegetables. However, again, the Hebrew tells a different story. The Hebrew word for garden is gan, and there’s only one reference in the entire Old Testament where gan refers to a vegetable garden (2 Kings 21:2).
The ancient Hebrews generally understood a gan to refer to an enclosed fruit orchard or vineyard. They also considered it to be a possession of great value, because once an orchard or vineyard has matured, it provides a large yield for a minimum amount of labor each year. Field cultivation, on the other hand, is very labor intensive every year.
Genesis 2:9 specifically says that the Garden (gan) of Eden contained “all kinds of trees,” which were “good for food.” Thus, when an ancient Israelite read that God gave Adam a gan, he recognized it as a truly wonderful gift, suitable even for a king.
Clearly, then, Genesis 1 and 2 don’t contradict each other. When properly understood, they provide a beautiful harmony.