The New Oxford Annotated Bible, third edition, says the following in its Introduction to the Pentateuch:
For example, it has long been noted that chs 1–3 of Genesis twice narrate the creation of the world. People are created first in 1:27 . . . and then again in 2:7 . . . . Furthermore, the second creation account does not simply mirror or repeat the first, but differs from the first both in outline and in detail. (p. 5)
One often hears the idea that there are two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2, almost as if it were intuitively obvious. There are certainly differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. But the question is whether we have here two separate accounts of creation that have been joined together by some much later editor, or whether we have one unified account with different emphases. The former view came from the skeptical scholarship that arose from the Enlightenment. The latter has, for millennia, been the view of the church.
There are differences between Genesis 1 and 2. Perhaps the most apparent difference between the two chapters has to do with the creation of man. Chapter 1 seems to say that man and woman were created simultaneously: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). In chapter 2, the man is created first (Gen. 2:7) and, later, the woman is created (Gen. 21–22). While this appears to be a significant difference between the two passages, it is not necessarily so.
The matter of plant life is a less noticeable but more difficult difference between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, God created plants on the third day (Gen. 1:11–12). In chapter 2, it appears that man was created before the plants (Gen 2: 5–8), thus putting the creation of plants on the sixth day.
The answer to this difficulty lies in recognizing the proper relationship between chapter 1 and chapter 2. Rather than seeing these two chapters as competing accounts of creation, the reader should see them as complementary. An illustration may be helpful at this point. In the days before Google and Apple maps replaced road maps, a map of a state would show the roads in the state as a whole. In addition, there would be insets that showed more detailed maps of major cities in the state. Genesis 1 is like the road map of the entire state. Genesis 2 is like the inset, focusing on a particular city.
In this case, Genesis 1 summarizes the entirety of creation. Genesis 2 focuses on the sixth day and all that is related to it. Genesis 2 is primarily about the creation of man and the garden of Eden. This reading makes the solution clear. Genesis 1:11–12 refers to the creation of the plant world, while Genesis 2:5–8 mentions the plants associated with the garden of Eden. At the beginning of the sixth day, there was no plant in the land and no herb of the field. There are two reasons for this. First, there was no rain, and second, there was no one to till the ground. God refrained from sending the rain and planting the garden until He had created man to work the garden. Verses 7–8 make this clear. First, God created man. Second, God planted the garden. And finally, He put the man He had created in the garden to till it and keep it (Gen. 2:15).
Reading the first two chapters of Genesis in this fashion makes better sense of them together than trying to read them as separate (and very different) accounts of creation.
This article is part of the Responding to Apparent Contradictions collection.