The Genesis 1 account tells about creation from God’s perspective, revealing his motive for bringing all creation into existence. This second story addresses creation from the perspective of humanity. It is not a chronological listing of events. It is not comparable with the first story. Furthermore, the passage speaks of creating a garden for the man to live in and is not ulitmaltely addressing the whole of creation, although the opening verses make a segway from the earlier story.
Gen 2:4-25 NRSV
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up -- for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground -- 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
18 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." 19 So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken." 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Verses 4-9 seem to indicate a sequence. First, God formed man. “Formed” connotes the idea of sculpting out of something pliable like clay. Second, God created a garden and formed plants from the ground to fill the garden. Third, God placed man in the garden he created.
I make two assumptions here. First, that God had intended humanity from the start and was bringing all creation to that end. Second, that God created humanity over billions of years of evolution. God brought humanity into existence at just the moment God had “readied” a spot on the Earth for his existence. Life, which God formed/evolved into humanity, began at least 4 billion years ago, “…when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up.” All life (plant, animal and human) has a common ancestor according to this passage, namely “the dust of the ground.” This is what scientists conclude. There is no reason I know of that “formed” would nescessarliy suggest an instantaneous act.
God began forming man 4 billion years ago. A few hundred million years ago he began populating the planet with plant life. As God completed one little spot called Eden, he then brought the man to completion in Eden, thereby “placing him in Eden.”
Was Eden a real place? The story certainly speaks of it as a reality. Were Adam and Eve actual people? Who knows? I suspect they could have been. There seems to be something very intentional and different about the creation of humans in these stories. God breathed life into Adam after forming him. Might God have evolved homo sapiens over eons and then in some way altered (breathed life into) their existence, possibly altering their DNA? Verse 22 tells of taking a “rib” from Adam to create Eve. Hugh Ross makes the case that the Hebrew would not necessarily mean a literal rib, but rather that God took something of Adams substance. A biopsy might be a more appropriate analogy. Was this altered DNA tissue taken from Adam and incorporated into the substance of a female homo sapien? Who really knows?
My point is not to give a definitive explanation of how the creation stories must be interpreted. They clearly have theological content and are told in such a way as to emphasize the theological content. That must never be lost. Still, the stories read like they intend to be in reference to historical realities, which is very much unlike and other ancient creation stories known to us.
My point is that when we bring our theological/political agendas as the primary interpretative framework for looking at scripture, we usually mess it up. I believe that liberal Christianity dismisses even the possibility of the historical aspects I have raised because it is imperative that these stories be interpreted as mythical. Otherwise, it might call into question the liberal take on other parts of the Bible and, worst of all, it might give legitimacy to the views of more conservative Christians. Fundamentalist Christians dismiss a perspective like I have presented because evolution has been the primary club liberals have used to bludgeon their credibility. Allowing for evolution would be a start on the slippery slide to liberalism. I suspect many conservatives are looking for a “Scopes Monkey Trial” moment that shifts the culture their direction and puts “liberals” in their place. Discrediting evolution, and by extension, scientists in the adacamies, they will have turned the tide.
In short, liberals have carved out a position based on scientific-rationalism that can’t afford historical merit in the creation stories. The non-historical nature of the stories is what gives the freedom to interpret how they see fit. Fundamentalists have carved out a position based on scientific-rationalism that can’t allow for scientific knowledge concerning evolution. If they do, their rationally constructed, “air-tight,” systematic theologies are at risk. One embraces scientific-rationalism as tool for a "liberated" agenda. The other embraces scientific-rationalism in order to unseat scientitic-rationalism.