Paul and Elijah: The Pharisee and the Prophet on Sinai


stpaulSaint Paul the Apostle was born in the ancient city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia (present-day Turkey) in the year of Our Lord 8, 12-14 years after the birth of Jesus Christ. [1]  The city was situated thirty miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea and nestled beneath the shadows of the Tarsus Mountains, the peaks rising as high as 12,000 feet above sea level.  In pre-biblical times the ancients tunneled a highway through a gorge and that became a trade route between Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, and Palestine.  Through the Cilician Gates passed infamous conquerors: Xerxes, Darius, Cyrus, and Alexander the great, and eventually the Medieval crusaders.

Stories of war and nomads captivated young Paul and he dreamed of passing through the Cilician Gates so he could see the world.  Of all the mountains in Paul’s mind one towered above them all:  Sinai, the Mountain of God. 

In the New Testament there exists no evidence that Saint Paul knew or met Jesus of Nazareth prior to the Resurrection.  It was not until the Lord appeared to Paul outside the city of Damascus that he encountered the Son of God (Acts 9:4-6; 20).  The sight of the Risen One and the words that he spoke to the Pharisee converted Paul’s heart and sent the man of earth on a quest to rediscover the Man of Heaven.  Paul’s search to see the face of the Lord led him on a journey of discernment through the sands of Arabia, to the pagan city of Petra where he preached his first sermon, and to Mount Sinai, the site where God revealed himself to the prophets Moses and Elijah.  Paul felt drawn to Sinai because he too was a prophet although he did not realize this until God spoke to him.  On Mount Sinai he and God ratified their covenant.

The truth of Paul’s inaugural mission exists between the lines of his letters.   In particular, two passages of Sacred Scripture capture the essence of the mind, heart, soul, and strength of the Apostle and offer insight to his desert experience.  In his letter to the Galatians he writes that he “went into Arabia,” and that “Sinai is a mountain in Arabia.”   The connection is clear: Paul went into Arabia to meditate on the Scriptures and to evangelize the gentiles and then he visited Sinai.  The desert is the realm of purification, the heights of Sinai the location of Divine Revelation.  He was reliving the Exodus account, the giving of the Law by God to Moses.  But his life was endangered by King Aretas IV of Nabataea, so he escaped along the same road taken by Elijah, who, when threatened by King Ahab and Jezebel his queen fled to Sinai to resign his commission as prophet until he heard the voice of the Lord tell him to return to Damascus along the desert road and resume his ministry (1 Kgs 19:3; 15).

In the desert, Paul, a zealous Pharisee and scholar, discovered that he knew the Son of God before Revelation through ardent study of the Scriptures and by “rigid adherence to the forms of an obscure and exclusive creed”—Mosaic Law.  Jesus and Paul were Jews and therefore connected by their language, culture, religion, and history.  Both belonged to the school of Shammai; their interpretation of Torah was more hardline than other practitioners who bore the moderate leanings of Rabbi Hillel, a relative of Gamaliel, the doctor of the Law under whom Paul studied (Acts 22:3).  The houses of the servant and his Master firmly stood on the rock of the Word.  Revelation at Damascus (Acts 9:3) resulted from the Divine Will and the preponderance of the stored-up expertise of Paul who soon recognized Jesus as the Son of God.   Who are you, Lord? Paul asked, prone and blinded by the light.  I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting (Acts 9:5).  Following Revelation the newly appointed Ambassador for Christ sought to discern the vision with the destination of Sinai in mind.  Sinai (Horeb) was the mountain in Arabia where God delivered the Law, the basis of the faith of devout practitioners like Jesus and Paul.  For Paul, there could be no other location from which to gain understanding about the covenant, his calling, Mosaic Law, and the Word of God than Mount Sinai.   “In righteousness based on the Law I was blameless” (Phil 3:6).  He set out on the desert road from Damascus toward the mountain of God.   

The devout Jew would neither intermarry with pagans nor take their meals with them, nor attend their places of education, nor join their amusements, nor take part in their political gatherings, nor buy his meat in their markets nor exchange a greeting with them.  Much less would he consent to any religious communion.  Every temple, every place where worship was offered to a god whom he could not distinctly identify with his own God, was an abomination to him.  He viewed the heathen as altogether given up to atheism or idolatry.  It was his object to keep himself pure, so far as he possibly could … and for this purpose it was necessary that he should separate himself as completely as possible from those of another religion.  Hence the jealous, exclusive isolation in which the Jewish colonists stood in all the heathen cities where they had formed settlements; and hence the hatred in which they were so generally held, and the persecutions of which they so frequently suffered. [2]

In Galatians 1:4 Paul writes of how he belonged to the tradition of ‘zeal of the law.’  In support of that statement two models for traditional zeal stand out: Phinehas, who slew an Israelite man for consorting with a Midianite woman (Num 25:7-13); and Elijah, who executed the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18), which engendered the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel.  Likewise, the fanaticism of Paul led him not only into zealous study and prayer but to violent action against those who compromised Judaism (the Christians), the same threat that drove Elijah to extreme action against the pagan prophets (1 Kgs 19:10).  Paul knew well this tradition based on the actions of the scriptural and historical models Phinehas and Elijah. Phinehas displayed his loyalty to God during the wilderness years (Nm 25:7-13) when he killed the Hebrew and his Midianite lover with a javelin within the encampment.  The legacy of Phinehas endured for nearly 1,000 years and inspired the Brothers Maccabees, Jewish revolutionaries who died in a blaze of glory against the Greek invaders (1 Mc 2:24-26).  These stories shaped the mind of Paul but for him the most enduring character was Elijah, “the prophet of the earth,” who defended the integrity of Judaism by assassinating 240 pagan priests (1 Kgs 18:40).   

Of all the prophets, priests, and sages of the Old Testament, none has kept so vivid a hold on the popular mind as Elijah the Prophet.  He is described as appearing mysteriously from an unknown background, fought as a soldier of the Lord against heathen gods, championed the downtrodden, performed his miracles, and vanished up to heaven in a blazing chariot. [3]

Paul identified with Elijah, a multifaceted man of action.  Yet the story he heard about the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain perplexed and captivated him.  “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.  Then Elijah appeared to them, along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus” (Mk 9:2c-4; cf Mt 17:1-9; Lk 9:37-43).  White light, shimmering garments, the voice that spoke from the cloud—straight from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel.  Another story about Jesus—the denunciation of the Pharisees and the Scribes (Mt 23:1-36)—infuriated Paul.  “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us, too,” a scribe complained against the Lord.  So fanatical had Paul become, like Phinehas, Maccabees, and Elijah, that he reacted violently.  He was incensed by the laxity of the Jerusalem authorities and their tolerance toward the Christians (Acts 9:1-2).   

A severe wave of persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles … Saul (Paul) meanwhile was trying to destroy the Church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment. (8:1-3)

What else could he do?  He who had “advanced beyond my contemporaries” in study and interpretation of Torah acted out in the Phinehas, Elijah, and Maccabean traditions.  The bloody campaign he waged against the Christians was the appropriate response to the threat they posed against Israel.  In Paul’s mind he was following the precedents set by the elders of Israel, mainly that of Elijah, a man whose style he imitated.   

Elijah, too, was clearly a man of “zeal.”  “I have been most zealous for YHWH of hosts,” he says (1 Kgs 19:14).  His zeal, of course, had consisted precisely in slaying the prophets of Baal. … But he had been stopped in his tracks, confronted by Ahab and Jezebel with a threat to his life (19:1-12); and he had run away “to Horeb, the mountain of God” (19:8), apparently to resign his prophetic commission.  There, in the famous story, he was met by earthquake, wind, and fire, but YHWH was in none of them.  Finally he heard “a still small voice,” inquiring why he was there.  His explanation as we just saw: great zeal, and now great disappointment.  “I alone am left, and they seek my life.”  Back comes the answer: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. [4]

After Revelation at Damascus Paul launched into a tour-de-force through the wilderness and Salvation History for “three years” (Gal 1:18).  He wasn’t meandering through the sands; his journey was calculated and precise.  Forty days or more transpired.  He was ready to put into action all he discerned in the wilderness.  His urgent need for solitude satisfied, he traveled deep into the Sinaitic peninsula.  Scripture is silent on what direction Paul took to reach the mountain of God, but when he arrived at its base his wild heart swelled to stand on the holy ground where Moses and Elijah stood.  If Paul was to believe that the Christ was Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, then the analytical side of his mind needed proof.  The witnesses Moses and Elijah testified on Jesus’s behalf.  The Lord was God. 

There is a fitness in the sojourn of Paul at Sinai before he broke silence and came back as a teacher under the new dispensation, the new Law of the Gospel, when we consider that both Moses and Elijah prepared for their missions at Sinai.  In the wilderness of Sinai, as on the mount of transfiguration, the three dispensations met in one; that as Moses had received the tablets of the law amid fire, and tempest, and thick darkness, while Elijah, the typical prophet, had here also listened to the voice of God and sped forth refreshed on his mission of righteousness [to Damascus], so now here, in the fullness of time, the greatest preacher of Him whom both the Law and the Prophets spoke, was strengthened and sanctified for his great work, was taught the breadth as well as the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom, and transformed from the champion of a bigoted and narrow tradition into the large-hearted apostle of the Gentiles.

The location of Sinai is debatable.  It is more a theological site than a geographical one.  What Sinai represented was more important than its location.  The journey of a nation through the wilderness culminated in the Great Theophany (Ex 19:16-25) when Moses received the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments that were written by the finger of God.  Far from home Paul never forgot the grandeur of the Tarsinian range but the site of Sinai struck him not with nostalgia but with astonishment and awe.  The jagged outline, the blood-red color—Sinai was a “a union of grandeur and desolation.”  It rose 9,000 feet from its base, a bald mountain, not the snow-clad summits of the north caped with fertile plains, but void of the drapery of oak, birch, moss, grass, or fir.  Would that he could have envisioned the surface of the moon rising high against the desert contours on his way to Horeb.  Preparing to make his ascent, he braced himself to receive fresh revelations. Wasn’t that what he was there for?  Atop Sinai and well-versed in Scripture and Tradition, came to believe that he was a repudiated prophet, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, in fact, a member of the entire noble fellowship of the prophets. 

“(Paul) was playing the part of the prophet who, ‘though zealous for the law,’ faced a paradigm shift after Christ revealed himself to Paul at Damascus.” [5] 

In his mind he was “Elijah, the prophet of the earth.”  Elijah prayed and closed the sky and for three years no rain fell on the land, the length of time of Jesus’s earthly ministry, and the number of years Paul spent in Damascus and Arabia (Gal 1:18).  Elijah on Mount Carmel slew the prophets of Baal then fled to Sinai to resign his commission as a prophet (1 Kgs 19:3, 10).  Only God issued another directive: “Go, take the desert road back to Damascus” (v 15).  This, Wright writes, explains Paul’s primary motivation in his ascent to Sinai.     

Saul might have been doing what a puzzled zealous prophet might be expected to do: going back to the source to resign his commission … complaining (like Moses, Jeremiah, and others) that he is not able to undertake the work he has been assigned.  And whatever still small voice he may have heard, it was certainly not underwriting the land of zeal in which he had been indulging until then.  His zeal was now to be redirected (Gal 4:18; see also 2 Cor 11:2).  He was to become the herald of a new king. [6]


[1] Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Paul.  The Year of Saint Paul was celebrated in 2008 on the 2,000th anniversary of the Apostle’s birth based on the Church’s calculation of Paul’s birth in AD 8. 

[2] Saint Paul in Damascus and Arabia by Rev. George Rawlinson, MA, Miami: Hard Press Books, 1980, p. 45.

[3] Joan Comay.  Who’s Who in the Old Testament.  New York: Bonanza Books, 1980. 

[4]N.T. Wright. “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah: Galatians 1:17 published in Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 115.

[5] NT Wright

[6] N.T. Wright.


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