On three occasions in Tanakh, a prophet receives a revelation at Mt. Sinai. Hashem reveals Himself to Moshe on the mountain during the burning bush episode (Shemot 3-4), and later, when giving him the Tablets of the Law (Shemot 19-20, 24, 33-34). Eliyahu, too, receives a revelation on the mountain after he is forced to flee from Izevel, in the aftermath of his victory over the Baal prophets on Mt. Carmel. The three episodes share much in common, and lead the reader to compare the two great prophets.
- Background events – The events preceding Eliyahu's revelation find parallels in each of the Moshe stories:
- On the Run – Both the episode of the burning bush and the revelation to Eliyahu occur on the backdrop of flight from an enemy. Both Moshe and Eliyahu slay servants of the king (Shemot 2:12, Melakhim I 18:40) prompting the king to call for their death (Shemot 2:15, Melakhim I 19:2). Both prophets then escape and eventually arrive at Sinai.
- National revelation and idolatry – In both narratives, there is a national ceremony involving altars and revelation of Hashem at a mountain (Shemot 24:4-11, Melakhim I 18:17-38) leading to a public affirmation of the nation's loyalty to Hashem (Shemot 24:3, Melakhim I 18:39). Yet soon afterwards, in each story the nation returns to idolatry (Shemot 32, Melakhim I 19:2,10,14) and the prophet cries out to God at Sinai.
- Appearance of an angel – An angel appears to Moshe (Shemot 3:2), causing him to approach the burning bush. An angel also appears to Eliyahu (Melakhim I 19:5-7), giving him food and directing him to Sinai.
- Forty days without food – Moshe spends forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai without eating (Shemot 34:28). Eliyahu also spends forty days and nights walking to Mt. Sinai, all fueled by a single cake eaten before the journey (Melakhim I 19:8).
- Cave in the mountain – During Hashem's revelation to Moshe, Moshe was to be hidden inside a crevice in the cliff ("נִקְרַת הַצּוּר", Shemot 33:22). Similarly, when Eliyahu arrives at Sinai, he sleeps in a cave ("הַמְּעָרָה", Melakhim I 19:9). The Bavli identifies these as the same exact cave.1
- Revelation on the mountain – Hashem orders Moshe and Eliyahu to stand on the mountain (Shemot 34:2, Melakhim I 19:11). Hashem then passes by (עבר) both Moshe (Shemot 33:19,22, 34:6) and Eliyahu (Melakhim I 19:11), and some manifestation of His glory appears to both of them (Shemot 33:18-23, Melakhim I 19:11-12).
- Hiding one's face – Both Moshe (Shemot 3:6) and Eliyahu (Melakhim I 19:13) hide their faces after Hashem's revelation.
- Requesting death – In response to the nation's sins, both Moshe (Shemot 32:32) and Eliyahu (Melakhim I 19:4) request that Hashem take their own life.
- God's mountain at Chorev – In both cases (Shemot 3:1, Melakhim I 19:8), Mt. Sinai is referred to as "הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה/חֹרֵב".
- Forty days and forty nights – Both stories (Shemot 24:18, 34:28 and Devarim 9:9,11,18,25, 10:10, and Melakhim I 19:8) refer to sets of forty days and forty nights using the same langugae: "אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה".
There is not a significant degree of linguistic overlap between the stories. However, the two phrases which are parallel are somewhat unique to these stories:
- "הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה/חֹרֵב" – These two occasions are the only times where this name is found.
- "אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה" – Of the ten appearances of this phrase, seven refer to Moshe's ascent to Mt. Sinai, and one to Eliyahu's journey.2
Points of Contrast
- Instigator of revelation – In Shemot 33, Moshe asks Hashem for the revelation, as proof of Hashem's benevolent attitude to the nation. Similarly, in Shemot 3, Moshe approaches the burning bush of his own volition. In contrast, Eliyahu does not request any revelation, and instead must be urged on by an angel.
- Attitude to the Israelite nation – In Shemot 32-34, Moshe is clearly motivated by a desire to protect the Israelite nation from Hashem's wrath, and he thus uses all of his oratory skill to plead forgiveness for the nation. In contrast, Eliyahu seems depressed and suicidal, and responds to Hashem's questions by criticizing the nation.
The comparison between the two prophets has been understood in contrasting ways by commentators.
- Implied rebuke – A number of exegetes including Seder Eliyahu, R. Moshe Alshikh, and Malbim see in the parallels an implied rebuke to Eliyahu. In the first revelation to Moshe at Sinai, Moshe is assigned to protect and deliver the Israelite nation from Egypt. In the second revelation, Moshe continues in this role, and despite the nation's sins, he prays for them and protects them. Eliyahu, in contrast, comes to Sinai to accuse the nation, and perhaps even to call for their destruction. As such, the similarities between the incidents were intended to remind Eliyahu that the purpose of a prophet is to serve and protect the nation, even when it sins, instead of merely punishing and critiquing them.
- Show of honor – Radak views the parallels between the stories as a means of giving honor to Eliyahu, who is thereby equated with the greatest of prophets, Moshe. He suggests that Hashem was not upset at Eliyahu's harsh measures in rebuking the nation, for after all he succeeded thereby to bring them back to worship of Hashem. A prophet can be lauded as either defender or accuser, depending on what is necessitated by the particular circumstances. For elaboration on both approaches, see Eliyahu at Chorev.