The Court of Heaven vs Me

It was a typical morning in heaven. An angel choir sang at dawn. It being heaven, that was lovely, and everyone woke up totally refreshed. The prophets had taken over several booths in their favorite diner, one-upping each other with stories from the old days. It being heaven, nobody minded that they were hearing the same stories for the (approximately) 10,000th time.

Jeremiah told about the time the Lord told him to walk around with a yoke across his shoulders, warning everyone to put their necks under the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar or be destroyed. He rubbed the back of his neck as if he’d only just removed it.

Elijah reenacted the scene with the prophets of Baal. He was the spoon, and they were the toothpicks, limping around their danish plate altar, cutting themselves and crying uselessly to their god to send fire. He got the usual big laugh at his taunt, “Maybe Baal is daydreaming, or off taking a piss.”

Hosea spun his gloomy tale of being told to marry a prostitute, let her return to her profession, and then purchase her back and live with her as his wife again, but Samuel lightened the mood with his spit-take that described how he wanted to react when the Lord led him to anoint the young David over his older and, frankly, more impressive-looking brothers.

But Isaiah sighed. His spoon clinked against the sides of the mug (in heaven, all food was perfect for your tastes the moment you requested it, but Isaiah found the stirring meditative). “I miss pleading the people’s case before the Lord.”

That got everyone quiet and nodding.

It was all joy all the time these days, but they weren’t needed like they were when they were on earth. They weren’t tired of heaven — the complete security in being loved, the no longer needing to strive to please, and the out-of-this-world food, company, and entertainment — but they were nostalgic for the days when they had a purpose.

“Maybe Jesus would let you take a turn as advocate in the Court of Heaven,” Samuel said.

Isaiah swiped the air in front of his face, dismissing that suggestion.

“If any of us could do it, it’d be you,” Hosea said. “After all, you made the most prophecies about Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Elijah said. “He likes you.”

This was one of their favorite jokes, because Jesus liked everyone. They all chucked, except Isaiah.

“Where’s the harm?” Jeremiah asked. “The worst he could say is, ‘no,’ and you had way worse said and done to you on earth.”

Isaiah snorted. “That’s for sure.”

They sat in silence with each other, listening to musicians from Bach to Jimi Hendrix trade licks in the bandshell, until Isaiah put his palms flat on the table. “I’ll do it.”

And then he was outside the double doors at the entrance to the Court of Heaven (because that’s how travel works there). His stomach was fluttery with nerves, which it hadn’t been in three thousand years. Jesus and two Court of Heaven angels hung out by the doors, on break. Their mood was so buoyant, they stood a foot above the floor.

Isaiah frowned. He expected the atmosphere to be more serious, and was reconsidering his request when Jesus called him over. There was no turning back. “My Lord, I love to worship. I live to worship. But I’d like to serve the people in front of our Father again.”

Jesus was silent.

“I mean, if I’m not overreaching, I hope you won’t be offended–”

“You can just say it.” Although Jesus interrupted Isaiah, his tone wasn’t impatient.

“May I plead for the people’s cases this afternoon?”

Jesus gave Isaiah a long, searching stare. Isaiah was sure he’d be found wanting. After all, who was he compared to Jesus? But then He said, “Give it a shot.”

The double doors opened and Jesus ushered Elijah into a tiny, plain room with a filing cabinet, a desk, and a straight-backed wooden chair. This was not at all the grand space Isaiah had imagined. God the Father was there — Isaiah felt His presence — but not in visible form.

“Father,” Jesus said. “Isaiah will take the next case.”

The top drawer of the filing cabinet opened. Jesus hefted the first file and flopped it on the desk. It was huge and unwieldy, with half the papers spilling out. Isaiah sat and opened it, preparing himself for horrible tales of perversion that must warrant such a file. He frowned. Outside of a little high school and college stupidity, for which she’d confessed and asked forgiveness, there wasn’t–

“Court of Heaven versus Natalie Hart,” the angel bailiff announced. “Prophet Isaiah for the defense.”

Isaiah cleared his throat and stood. This’d be simple. “My Lord, I am grateful for the opportunity to come before you today and–”


“Yes, my Lord.”

“Here are today’s cases.”

There was a rumble to Isaiah’s right and he looked to see the filing cabinet zoom higher than he could see. He gulped. “Uh, yes. Since the world began, no ear has heard, and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him. You welcome those who cheerfully do good, who follow godly ways. That describes my client, who goes to church, uses her gifts for your glory, and studies your Word, not every day, to be sure, but pretty close, most of the time, recently. Who tithes. Who frequently comes to you in prayer. Please don’t remember her sins forever. Because of your mercy and your compassion, forgive her.” Maybe it was a little vain to use some of his old words, but Isaiah thought it was a stirring speech.

“Have you looked all the way through her file?”

Either God was truly not pleased or this was a test. It was always hard to tell at first. Isaiah stammered and frantically flipped pages.

God didn’t let him struggle for long. “What about her recurring problems with anger, bitterness, discouragement, lack of trust, unkind thoughts, pride, excessive daydreaming about personal glory, lack of discipline and perseverance, lack of follow-through?”

Isaiah blinked. “But she does everything she’s supposed to do–”

“Pah,” God said. “You left out some of your own words: ‘When we proudly display our righteous deeds, we find they are but filthy rags.’ Classic trying to work out her own salvation, to find her worth in what she does.”

“Even you must admit, God, that her heart is generally in the right place.” Isaiah’s own heart pounded. “She’s a good, moral person, who is genuinely trying to do better. You would’ve saved Sodom and Gomorrah for one such as her. Have mercy on her.”

“My mercy grows thin with repeated rebellion. I will be repaid in full for the debt of her sins.”

This was how it had been back then, too. The Lord vowed to punish his people; sometimes he could be convinced not to, and sometimes He couldn’t. Isaiah hung his head in acceptance, and then jumped when he felt a sudden hand on his shoulder.

“May I?” Jesus whispered.

“Please.” Isaiah sat and patted the sweat from his forehead.

“If it please the judge,” Jesus said. “In the matter of the Court of Heaven versus Natalie Hart, please note that her debt has been cleared. I have paid it.”

Isaiah stared at Jesus. That was so…straightforward.

Jesus continued, “Strike the record of Natalie’s sins and replace it with my record of righteousness.”

“So be it,” God said. And there was the sound of a gavel banging.

That file disappeared and another immediately took its place.

After the bailiff announced it, Jesus said, “His debt has been cleared. I have paid it. Strike the record of his sins and replace it with my record of righteousness.”

Another one. “Her debt has been cleared. I have paid it. Strike the record of her sins and replace it with my record of righteousness.”

Twenty more times, the same thing. And then twenty more. Tears streamed down Isaiah’s cheeks, soaking his beard.

Just as a very slim file made its way to the table, there was a pop in the room, and there stood one of the Evil One’s dark angels. “Witness for the prosecution.” His voice was as oily as his hair.

Isaiah’s stomach clenched. He’d never seen a dark angel in heaven before. But, calm as could be, Jesus gestured for him to go ahead.

“You can’t let this one get off easy,” the dark angel said. “Deathbed confessions are so hard to take seriously.”

“I told stories about this on earth.” Jesus shrugged. “All that’s required for the debt being clear is the person’s acceptance of it. Doesn’t matter when. I already paid it.”

“But these sins were huge. Huge!” The dark angel narrowed his eyes as if he were playing his trump card. “How can you have mercy on someone who never had mercy on a single person in his whole life?”

“It isn’t mercy.” The deep growl of God’s voice vibrated through Isaiah’s bones. “It’s justice.”

The dark angel scoffed.

“It is justice,” Jesus said. “I paid his debt. He accepted the payment when he accepted me. You can’t make someone pay the same debt twice. My record of righteousness now stands in for his record of sins, as a gift. He couldn’t have worked out his own salvation, even if he’d been ‘a good person.’ I’ve already–”

“Heard you the first time.” The dark angel glared at Isaiah. “I thought you prophets were supposed to be all into pronouncing judgment. How can you be a part of this?”

Isaiah bared his teeth, but it wasn’t really a smile. “I was only ever the mouthpiece of my Lord.”

The dark angel rolled his eyes and disappeared with a pop.

“So….” Jesus turned to Isaiah.

“So mercy can grow thin, but justice–” Isaiah’s voice cracked.

“Justice has unavoidable logic,” Jesus said. “Sin creates a debt. A debt that must be paid. I’ve paid it. Nobody can pay twice for the same debt.” He glanced at the filing cabinet. “I wish they’d stop trying.”



Just Enough: Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Approximately 870 B.C.E.
Zarephath, near Sidon (about 1o miles north of modern Tyre, Lebanon)

Rashida was up to her knees in the Great Sea*. Between waves, the water lapped at her son Salim’s bellybutton. She closed her eyes against the sight of his hollow stomach. Of course that’s when a big wave came and pushed him down, which made her stumble because they were holding hands. Her eyes flew open and she used her panic to yank his head free of the sea and drag them shallower. He came up laughing, although that changed to sputtering when he licked the salt in the water on his face. She used her head scarf to dry his eyes.

This last trip was supposed to be a pleasant diversion, but it was turning out to be a cruelty. To surround her son with water he couldn’t drink, that could cause him pain … she was a terrible mother.

“I think I see a cloud,” Salim piped up. “Way over there.”

Although it was hopeless, Rashida shaded her eyes with her hand and peered over the sea to the west. Nothing but cruel blue sky. “My old eyes can’t see it, so I hope you’re right.”

Salim giggled. “You’re not old, Mama.”

No, twenty wasn’t old, or, at least, it shouldn’t be, but she was almost as gaunt and shuffling as her mother had been last seedtime*. And her hair, her glorious hair, was falling out, which was really why she’d grown so particular about wearing her most beautiful head covering all the time. “Come on, silly Salim. Let’s get dry.”

She swung their arms until it took all their energy to walk in the soft sand and she had to let go.

There was the sound she hated: Salim wasn’t just panting, he was wheezing. “I’m too old to keep going,” she said. “Is it okay with you if we rest here?”

He nodded and flopped down. She sat with her back to the water, put his tunic back on him, and tucked him onto her lap. The breeze wrapped the ends of her head scarf around them like a hug.

“Why was there drought again this winter?”

Trust her Salim to ask the unanswerable question. “I wish I knew.”

“Is Baal angry at us?”

“That’s what the priests are saying.” She hugged him tighter. There was only one advantage to their situation: Salim was too scrawny to serve as a good sacrifice.

“Yesterday, in the square, they said that’s why there isn’t even any dew.” He picked at the embroidered hem of her scarf. “What is dew?”

Tears burned behind her eyes. What a terrible world when children had no memory of dew. “When you were little.” She poked his side to tickle him, but her finger jabbed too far between his ribs and he whimpered. She stroked his side and tried not to cry. “When you were little, every morning, the grass and leaves and roofs of the houses would be covered with a fine layer of water. It was different than rain, because you never saw it in the air, but it was on the ground every day.”

His voice was a whisper. “Wow.”

“Are you ready to head home?”

He nodded, so she pushed him onto his feet. She had to roll onto her hands and knees for a moment before struggling upright. It was like reverse stars formed in her vision, instead of white light, there were black dots, but they cleared after she blinked a dozen or so times. “Let’s take a different path.” She pulled him to the right and waggled her eyebrows as if they were in for a treat. “I think I saw a caper vine with leaves.”

Their progress was slow, but they eventually made it to the place she’d spotted. Even the wild capers were struggling. This was a plant that would crack a stone wall, that would send up shoots days after going up in flames, but after two years of no rain, it sent up only a few stunted branches. But if she had Salim lift up the dead upper growth, she could harvest the new branch tips and young leaves, as well as six ripe caper berries, without getting too scratched up.

The berries went in the jar of seawater she’d refilled and then she divided up the leaves. Even Salim’s tiny palm was barely filled. Although her instincts told her shove the meager meal into her mouth all at once, she forced herself to eat like a civilized person, to take no more than two leaves at a time, chew them into a pulp, press the slimy lump against the roof of her mouth to squeeze out every drop of liquid she could before swallowing. Salim followed her lead. He was such a good boy.

She smoothed his hair and cupped the back of his head. If staring at her son were food and drink, she’d be full.

On the way home, they found some bitter herbs that were still barely edible and sucked on some pebbles to try to trick their mouths into producing more spit. The trip home took half the morning. It would’ve taken longer, but Rashida eventually swung Salim onto her back, where he fell asleep, his breathing shallow. Despite it being near the heat of the day, he shivered. At the house, she laid him on his mat, draped one more layer of wool over him, and went out to gather kindling.

The white broom bushes right outside of town were clean, so she had to go a little farther afield to find one with dry sticks underneath. By the time she got there, she had to rest, so she slumped in the shade of the bush, scooped kindling into her lap and let herself cry like she couldn’t in front of Salim.


Rashida screamed and scrambled away from where the voice came from, scattering the branches. It was an older man. On the road. While she stared rudely at him, he plopped down in the dust.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.” He had a funny accent, but she could understand him.

“I’m the one who should apologize, Stranger.”

And then he just sat there. According to all the customs of her people, she should offer him drink and food immediately, but how could she?

“Where have you come from?” she asked.

“I am Elijah, a prophet of the Lord God of Israel, but I came from the other side of the Jordan.” He leaned in as if telling her a secret. “My king is upset with me.”

Rashida glanced down the road, but there was no cloud of dust.

Elijah chuckled. “King Ahab doesn’t know where I am. There will be no soldiers. At least, so long as you don’t tell anyone from Sidon I’m here. His queen grew up there. She might hate me even more than her husband.”

What an odd thing to admit to a stranger. “Nobody has passed by here in months, not since the wadis* dried up.”

“The stream I lived near ran out a few weeks ago, and my God told me to come here.”

“I’m sorry that your God has such bad taste in destinations,” she said. “We’re in our second year of terrible drought.”

“Why are you still here?”

Her voice was thick as she spoke around the lump that formed in her throat. “We waited too long. Now my husband and his parents are dead and my son and I are too weak.”

He raised his right hand as if to touch her, but he left it in the air. “I am sorry for your drought.”

She snorted. “Why? You didn’t cause it.” The words jumped out before she could stop them. Who was this bold, sarcastic woman?

His hand lowered. “Then I’m sorry to have to ask you for a little water in a cup.”

“My cistern is empty, and Zarephath’s well isn’t consistent, but they’ll let me draw some water for you. Come.” She rebundled her sticks and headed towards town.

He followed behind her, and didn’t try to engage her in any more conversation until they approached the first houses. “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”

Rashida stood as if suddenly rooted to the spot. She didn’t dare face him. “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour in the jar and barely enough oil left in the bottom of the jug.” She hung her head and whispered, “I was just gathering a few sticks to cook us a last meal before we curled up by the embers and waited for death.”

“Don’t be afraid.”

She let out one choked sob. Afraid didn’t begin to cover how she felt.

Elijah spoke more gently. “Go ahead and do just what you said, but make a little bread for me. Use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son.” He walked around to face her and waited. “Look at me.”

“You’re not like Baal’s priests.” She looked up in time to watch him spit.

“Thank you. My God, the Lord God of Israel, has told me something for you.”

Her eyes grew wide.

“There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again.”

Although there was no reason why it should be so, his words were like a balm on a rash.

She went straight to the well, where she convinced the guards to let her have some water for her guest. Then she went to her indoor fire pit and lit the white broom sticks. She dumped out the last of the flour, mixed it with a drop of the water and the last of the oil, and shaped it into three tiny flats of bread that cooked up in no time. Rashid was right next to the fire, but none of this woke him up. The prophet was still at the outskirts of town, so she took the food to him there.

He drank one gulp of the water and chewed the bread thoughtfully. “Let’s take this to your son.”

Rashida took him home. Together, they woke up Salim, who was so over-the-top grateful for the sip of water Elijah had left him, that it made her laugh-cry. They ate their little loaves, and then sat in silence until it was time for the evening meal. She took the caper berries from that morning out of the sea water brine and put two in each of three bowls.

Elijah smiled at her. “Aren’t you going to make some more bread?”

Because he’d been kind to Salim, she humored Elijah by taking the flour jar and turning it upside down over her lap. “See?” she said to him.

“Look,” he said to her at the same time Salim clapped and pointed at her.

She looked. It was flour.

The jar hit the floor. She licked her fingertip and dipped it in the flour. It was wheat. Glorious, fresh wheat. To replace her stale mixed spelt and barley. She couldn’t take her eyes off it, so she had to fumble around until her hand hit her mixing bowl. She rose on her knees and carefully tipped the flour into the bowl, shaking out her robe to get it all. It looked like there were four handfuls of flour in there. Her eyes grew scratchy from lack of blinking as she reached for her oil jug and upended it over the mixing bowl. Soon, there was the right amount of oil, but it was still coming out, so she stuck Elijah’s cup under the spout until the oil ran out.

Nobody spoke as she mixed the dough, blew on the white broom embers until they flamed up again*, and cooked the bread. She divided the oil into three cups and set the feast in front of everyone: one loaf of bread, a few swallows of oil, and two barely pickled caper berries.

As they ate, they laughed.

And the next morning, the same thing happened. Just enough flour and oil came out of the containers to make food for one meal. At the midday meal, it happened again. By the evening meal, Rashida believed it would be there, just as Elijah’s God said.



Great Sea = Mediterranean Sea

seedtime = season of fall

wadi = streams that were filled with rushing water in the winter and spring, after the rains. Most wadis are seasonal. Some have water in them all the time, but in times of severe drought, even those run dry.

According to Nogah Hareuveni (a researcher who studies biblical landscape and plants), white broom embers will actually do this. This is how he describes it: “The traveler who looks on the ground beneath the white broom will also be able to see the mattress that served Elijah when he slept under the broom: a layer of thin, dry branches that drop off in the arid periods when the bush cannot supply nourishment to all the branches. These branches that cover the ground burn readily when gathered into a pile for kindling. Amazingly, this fire does not go out as quickly as expected. On the contrary, it grows quietly, producing great heat, dying down very gradually, leaving a pile of gray, charcoal-covered branches. A gentle puff into the pile proves that there is still a fire smoldering inside.” (Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, Neot Kedumim Ltd., Israel: 1984, page 32)