We see this fact from the beginning of Paul’s ministry. In the autobiographical section of his letter to the Galatian Christians (Galatians 1:11-2:21), the apostle tells us that after his conversion “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (vs. 17).
Paul telescopes events somewhat here, as Acts tells us that immediately after his conversion “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). It was either then, or “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him” (Acts 9:23) that Paul “went into Arabia.”
Today we might presume that the “Arabia” Paul mentions was the same area that we call Arabia today – the Arabian Peninsula – but in Paul’s day that was not the case. In New Testament times Arabia referred to the area of Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, and the territory on the northwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. It was this area that was made into the Roman Province of “Arabia” beginning in the second century.
That this was the area Paul had in mind when he said he went to Arabia is seen just a little later in the apostle’s letter where he wrote about the symbolism of Hagar: “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia …” (Galatians 4:25 ESV, NKJV, etc.). In fact, of all the places in “Arabia” to which Paul might have gone after his conversion, it is more than likely that Mount Sinai would be the one to which he would have been drawn. As a devout Jew steeped in the law of Moses and the Covenant made at Sinai, Paul might naturally have desired to go to that very area to pray, meditate and learn how the truth he had now come to see related to what he already deeply believed.
Additionally, of course, Paul was fully aware of the story of Elijah who, after the prophet’s life became endangered, fled to Horeb, the Mountain of God also called Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:10, 1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chronicles 5:10, etc.) where he was instructed by God (1 Kings 19). In fact, Paul mentions exactly this incident in his letter to the Romans:
“…I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Romans 11:1-5).
In this passage Paul shows a similarity between his own situation (“I am an Israelite myself”) and that of Elijah, the remnant in Elijah’s time and the remnant in his own time. The verses he quotes are from 1 Kings 19 – the story of Elijah running to the mountain of God in Sinai. A number of scholars have pointed out that there are repeated echoes of the story of Elijah going to Sinai in what Paul tells us of his own trip to Arabia. Just as Elijah stressed at Sinai, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:10), so Paul tells us he “was extremely zealous.” Just as Elijah complained at Sinai that his enemies were trying to kill him, so we saw in Acts that the Jews were apparently trying to kill Paul before his journey to Arabia. Just as God told Elijah to return to Damascus (1 Kings 19:15), so Paul returned directly to Damascus from Arabia (Galatians 1:17).
As N.T. Wright has written, there are even more subtle parallels between the two stories. Just as Elijah went to Sinai after zealously killing the prophets of Baal, so Paul, mistakenly but with equal zeal, went to Arabia after persecuting members of the Christian Church. Just as Elijah is told to return and anoint and thereby announce the new kingship of Hazael of Syria and Jehu of Israel, so Paul returned to announce the new kingship of Jesus as the anointed one – the Messiah (Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 115, p. 689).
The similarities with Elijah do not stop with these parallel events. One of the most significant aspects of Elijah’s ministry is recorded in his trip to the coastal area of Sidonian Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-10), which Jesus himself used as a symbol of the Gospel going to the Gentiles (Luke 4:25-26). Paul’s undoubted knowledge of the story of Elijah going to the Gentiles gives us even more reason to believe that he may well have seen himself as travelling in the footsteps of the zealous Old Testament prophet.
The autobiographical section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians shows us that God will always use zeal when he can guide it to his purposes.