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'The Expulsion'

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 7 March 2006

The last time I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I was confronted by one of the most powerful paintings from an Australian artist, Arthur Boyd’s “The Expulsion”. Adam and Eve are set in a particularly scrubby Australian bush setting. The rather badly drawn Adam leans forward in motion with his hands over his face. Beside him Eve is similarly in motion, her body pale beside that of Adam’s, her left arm is stretched behind her as if to ward off a horror. Her face is downcast, a mask of misery.

Behind them, the source of their terror, is the angel with both arms stretched towards them in menace. The angel’s mouth is an open black hole and its eyes glare out at the couple shrinking before it. There is no paradise behind the angel, no luxuriant growth complete with exotic animals, just more of the same scrubby Australian bush.

To see this painting and to understand its subject in the context of its place in the Bible is to understand something that is being slowly masked by our culture of personal and corporate progress and success. It is to understand, as the poet Virgil put it, “There is heartbreak at the heart of things”.


Boyd’s painting and the story to which it refers expresses this brokenness at the centre of our lives. We are outcasts from our true state and things are amiss. We are cast out into a harsh world in which we must make our own way.

An analysis of the meaning of this image and its setting in the prehistory of Genesis 1-11 requires that we take these texts seriously while admitting their legendary nature. They are historical in that they point to the real circumstances of human living not in that they are a description of the origin of the world. Likewise, the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus differ from those of the cross in that the former is what we may call historical legend, while the latter is an event that took place in time. The following analysis is written in a style that does not differentiate between these two modes, so allowing a single story to be told.

Boyd’s picture shows Adam and Eve fleeing in terror from the YES of God spoken as the garden of Eden. In the garden they lived in intimacy with each other:

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. (Genesis 2:23)

They also lived in intimacy with God who walked in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Their work was to till and keep the garden. They could eat of all the fruit of the trees in the garden except for a certain tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. For if they eat of that tree they will die.

In paradise, Adam and Eve are saved from having to judge. They are saved from having to decide who is good and who is evil: a terrible burden. They are saved from placing themselves above another as judge and therefore losing the intimacy that is at the centre of all love. In paradise, Adam and Eve are to understand that this burden may be only carried by God and that if they take it upon themselves they will die.


The temptation to moralise about the story is strong, particularly when we read of the punishment that is meted out by God after he finds out what has happened (Genesis 3:13-19). God sums up the situation by declaring that man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil and he sends the couple out of the garden and posts an angel to guard the way to the tree of life in case the man should eat of this and live forever.

The first account of human history that is then related is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Abel was keeper of sheep and Cain was a tiller of the ground and both presented offerings to God. But God:

... had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen?” If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door: its desire is for you, but you must master it. (Genesis 4:5-7)

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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