A new discussion from a different writer
Hebrew scholars have calculated that this discussion comes from a different writer than Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3. The accepted description of the first writer (1:1-2:3) is called "E" - which stands for Elohim - and the fact that all of these verses refer to God as Elohim אֱלֹהִים ('elohiym).
But in the verses of Genesis 2:4 through at least until Genesis 4, God is referred to as Elohim and Yahweh יְהֹוָה (Yĕhovah). This is being translated as "LORD God" instead of just "God." And in Genesis 4, the referral is just to Yahweh, converting to just LORD. And throughout the Old Testament, we find many stories differently described and often mismatched, linked with one or another of these names. The verses that mention Yahweh are thus referred to as written by "J" (for Jehovah, a transliteration).
Is this really the case? Are we talking different writers of the Bible?
The reality is that these teachings were initially passed on among ancient teachers through the oral tradition, from teacher to student who then became a teacher and passed it on. At some point, some of these oral teachings were put into writing. And because there were different lineages in place - there are slightly different orations, which teach the same ultimate Truths, but with some trivial differences. This is especially true when allegory or symbolism was used - which ancient teachers used a lot.
And those scribes who put these oral teachings into writing did so at different times and places. But then the different recorded orations were combined by sectarian scribes trying to create a single institution - for political purposes.
And thus within the Old Testament we have a mixture of oral teachings, pieced together with political purpose by sectarian institutions over the centuries.
An instructional parable
These verses, from Genesis 2:4 through Genesis 3:24, tell a specific instructional parable, completely distinguished from Genesis 1:1-2:3.
The key Hebrew word to understand here is תּוֹלְדוֹת, which can mean 'descendants, results, proceedings, generations, genealogies,' and more specifically, 'the account of men and their descendants,' according to the lexicon.
This is followed by a translation to "the heavens [שָׁמַיִם] and the earth [אֶרֶץ]." How does this tie into the previous - relating to humanity?
The word שָׁמַיִם can mean the physical 'heavens' which include the stars, but it can also refer to the spiritual world. The Hebrew word אֶרֶץ can mean earth specifically, or land or territory or even people of the land.
Understanding that Genesis already discussed God's creation of the physical world and all the species including humanity, the correct interpretation of this phrase would be that it is a preamble for a discussion that describes the account of how we descended from the spiritual world to become enmeshed within the physical world. This might better be translated:
This is the account of how we fell from the spiritual sky into the physical world.
The next sentence begins to describe an event that takes place prior to there being any plants, rain and no man to work the ground. Yet we know from Genesis 1:20-30 that God had created all the fish, the plants, the animals on the earth and also created man and woman (Gen. 1:27). He also told them to "be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it." (Gen. 1:28) So we know that this does not fit within a chronological description of the creation of the physical universe.
We also know that Genesis already described how God had created all the living plants, and from Genesis 1:29 we know that God gave man the plants to eat: "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food."
Yet in this new verse, it speaks to a time prior to rainfall, plants and man: "there was no man to work the ground."
What does "no man to work the ground" mean?
The Hebrew word being translated to "work" is עָבַד. This word can mean to 'labor or work,' but it can also mean 'service.' For example, if the word is written with God's name behind it, the phrase will mean 'service to God.' Together with the Hebrew word אֲדָמָה it means another type of service. Yes, אֲדָמָה can mean 'ground,' but it can also mean earth, land, country, or territory. In other words, it can also refer to the physical world as opposed to the spiritual realm.
So what are we talking about here? The translation and interpretation of the text into English is obviously lacking in application and context. Rather, the correct interpretation is that this statement serves to point out the period before we became servants of the physical world - often described as 'mammon' as well as "the devil."
As Jesus and so many of the prophets taught, we basically have two choices. We can serve God with love and devotion or we can work to serve ourselves - trying to enjoy and make ourselves happy. We always have this choice. But the consciousness of serving ourselves is transformed into the service of the passing elements of the physical world and its illusory nature, as we seek our own happiness away from God. This has also been described as "serving mammon."
Now should the reader insist on the translations to "work the ground," "earth" and so on, then we could just as well conclude that these references are wholly symbolic, and symbolize the same interpretation of describing a time 'before the fall.' The Hebrew text is broad enough to allow for this symbolic translation, as Genesis is rich in allegory and symbolism. The purpose is to portray complex spiritual issues in an understandable way.
Let's use an example. Let's say that a young child asks his parents how a house is built. The parents will not get into a technical discussion of how permits are given and architects draw plans using CAD. They will not be discussing the technical aspects of installing insulation or wiring. Rather, they'll use allegory and likely some symbolism to explain the process to a young child.
They might tell the child that first a big man goes into the forest and chops down some real big trees. Then he cuts some of the trees into pieces. Another man rolls out a big carpet made of stones on the ground and the big man stands tree trunks on each side and then fits all the tree pieces together to build the house.
This is a very simplified explanation of building a house, using symbolism and allegory. The big man in the woods symbolizes timber companies that take their equipment into the forest and cut trees down, and the carpet made of stones symbolizes the concrete foundation of the house. And so on. If the parent went into a big discussion about timber companies and concrete pads, the child would likely fall asleep - not having learnt a thing.
Now assuming the parents were talking about a house made primarily of wood, the allegorical story would be quite informative. The young child would learn that houses are made primarily from trees and rock - concrete.
In the same way, the description of how we rejected God and fell into the physical world and took on these temporary physical bodies is quite technical and complex. Also note this knowledge was orally passed down over generations of teachers to their students prior to being written. This means the verses were accompanied with an oral purport of their meaning.
Simplifying a complicated event
The bottom line is that this Genesis description simplifies an event (our fall from the spiritual world) down to the basics - as will be described in the next verses.
Any other interpretation of this is wrought with ignorance. To assume a literal translation of these verses is to not only be grossly inaccurate regarding the events that have occurred within nature: It also misses the large and important lessons they purvey. Over the past two centuries, humans have found significant archaeological evidence showing an evolutionary process took place within the earth's history. To abide by a strict literal translation of Genesis is to ignorantly deny this physical evidence, and miss the real message of Genesis.
We must therefore be wise. We cannot ignore the scientific evidence that refutes a literal translation of Genesis. What we can do - which is the purpose of our having this scientific evidence - is reach for the deeper meaning within the text. And it is there.
Many scientists have assumed that because the physical evidence refutes the literal translation, Genesis must be false. This is also an assumption made in ignorance, because it leaves behind the significant evidence showing that there is another dimension - the origin of the living spirit-person - that we cannot see with these physical eyes. This is why we cannot find any physical element missing in a physical body at the time of death. We do not see the spirit-person leaving the body because these eyes are physical, not spiritual.
And it is precisely this reason - the lack of vision into the spiritual realm - that has caused Genesis to be mistranslated and misinterpreted by sectarian teachers who have not received its wisdom from the right sources.
The bottom line is either course - one of trying to take away a literal translation from Genesis, or rejecting it altogether because it does not comply with the physical archaeological evidence - is short-sighted. We must see the deeper wisdom hidden within these texts.