Bread of Angels


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Book Review

Bread of Angels by Tessa Afshar has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

As young woman of 16, Lydia has become a masterful dyer like her father, Eumenes. She has learned everything from him, except the secret to his inexpensive, but superb quality, purple dye. Although her father has faith in her abilities, Lydia suffers from severe anxiety. It creeps up on her at night when she tries to sleep, and during the day when she must make a decision, but she perseveres and forces herself to act appropriately.

One afternoon, a young man named Jason carries Eumenes home. A horse reared up and hurt her father, causing him to stumble over a ravine. Jason calmed the horse and rescued Eumenes. Lydia is surprised to find herself attracted to the handsome young man but puts aside her interest to care for her father.

Although Eumenes is bruised and bloodied, the doctor says he will make a full recovery. Jason visits over the coming weeks, and Lydia soon finds herself swept away by his attentions. He often asks about her father’s secret dyes and wonders why they do all the work themselves. He invites Lydia to meet his mother. She is a cold woman, but she offers to become Eumenes’ business partner so that their business can grow and they can hire help to do their work. Even though he has never wanted a partner before, Eumenes agrees.

Jason’s mother hires a master dyer to work with Eumenes and Lydia. Neither of them trust the man and often send him out to find useless ingredients while Eumenes teaches Lydia his secrets. Jason keeps visiting, asking when the new employee will learn her father’s secrets, but Eumenes is adamant that he will not teach the man until he is certain of his loyalties.

After three months, they convince the man that they have taught him everything, although they have not. Jason’s mother is convinced she no longer needs Eumenes to make the dye, so she trumps up charges against him, and Eumenes is arrested for theft.

As she is a wealthy Roman citizen, her accusations are accepted. Eumenes instructs Lydia to return to their home in secret and retrieve what she can before Jason’s mother takes everything. Eumenes is publically flogged and then released from prison. He and Lydia take refuge at an inn with an old friend.

As Eumenes struggles to recover his strength, Lydia learns several truths. First, she is surprised to learn the reason her father never seemed to save money was because he helped so many people in Thyatira. The second is that Jason knew of his mother’s treachery. In fact, he had trained his horse to rear up so that it would hurt Eumenes.

Heartbroken, Lydia returns to tell her father. They hope to restart their lives together in Philippi, but Eumenes’ health grows worse. He makes Lydia promise to go to Philippi without him and get in contact with a Roman general they once knew named Varus. Eumenes believes Varus will aide Lydia as she tries to set up her own dye shop. When her father dies, Lydia sinks into despair until his friend, the innkeeper, gives her a letter from her father. He wrote it before he died. In it, he encourages her to have hope and go to Philippi.

Lydia begins making preparations for her long journey. While in town, she comes across a girl about her age who is begging in the streets. Something about the girl tugs at Lydia’s heart, and she brings her back to the inn. The girl’s name is Rebekah. She is well-educated but was cast away by her cruel father when she refused to marry the man he had picked for her.

Her potential husband was a much older widower who had abused his first wife. Lydia and Rebekah soon form a strong friendship. She uses her few resources to buy a ticket for passage to Philippi for Rebekah and herself. Unlike Lydia, Rebekah was raised in the Jewish faith. She begins teaching Lydia about God’s love and faithfulness.

Once in Philippi, Lydia visits General Varus. Although he respected her father, the general is loath to consider lending her money to start her business, mostly because she is a young woman. As she leaves his house, a servant summons her to return. Varus’ mother, Aemilia, has overheard their conversation. She agrees to loan Lydia the money to set up a small shop.

Lydia and Rebekah work hard to make the shop prosperous. One day a local merchant comes in to peruse their wares. Lydia’s talent impresses him, but even more so by her discretion after he is struck by an epileptic fit.

Since her father suffered from them, she knows to lay him down and put something in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. She also closes the door to keep others from seeing him. The man’s name is Rufus, and he becomes a friend and mentor to Lydia. His son, Antiochus, is another matter. He reminds Lydia of Jason — handsome in appearance, but deceitful at heart.

Through honest hard work, perseverance and her newfound faith in Rebekah’s God, Lydia’s business prospers. She even manages to pay back Aemilia’s loan earlier than expected. Rufus urges her to join the dyers’ guild, as it would allow her to buy her wool at a better price, give her more patrons and increase her revenue, but she still cannot afford the membership fee.

Rebekah tells her the story of God providing manna for His people in the wilderness. She encourages Lydia to trust in God’s faithfulness to provide for their needs. When Lydia offers a warm bed to Leonidas, a drunk actor, he rewards her kindness by buying her most expensive piece of fabric and giving her extra money for her hospitality. The money is enough for her to join the guild.

Leonidas also spreads the word to his actor friends about the quality of fabric she sells, and soon she is inundated with new orders. One of his friends also allows her to rent a shop from him at a reduced rate. It is much larger and in a very respectable part of town.

On her deathbed, Aemilia calls Lydia to her side. She requests that her son, General Varus, adopt Lydia so that she can become a citizen of Rome. That way, she will not have to pay the high taxes. It would also provide Lydia the protection of his name and a higher position in Philippi. Varus agrees.

Twenty years pass. Lydia has made herself and her household secure and successful. That is, until she crosses paths with Antiochus. She secretly buys a young slave girl before he get his hands on her. She also advises a widowed friend to hire Antiochus’ steward to run her business rather than let Rufus’ son buy her out. Irate, Antiochus vows to ruin Lydia and her store.

Lydia’s old fears resurface, and she spends many sleepless nights worrying about the safety of herself and her friends — especially after an important vat of dye is sabotaged. Nothing they can do allows them to salvage the material.

The following day, Sabbath, Lydia and Rebekah go to the river to pray and talk with other Jews. As Rebekah recites Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, they are interrupted. Paul, Luke, Silas and a Roman approach and ask if they might speak to them about the fulfillment of the prophecy through Jesus Christ. Lydia, Rebekah and the other women are baptized into this new faith. She invites Paul and the others to stay at her home while they preach. When she expresses worry over the ruined dye that will cause her to lose a great deal of money and customers, Paul prays over the vat, and the dye is restored. Lydia’s fears lessen as she learns that God has her life in His hands.

Antiochus tries to harm Lydia by paying a stonemason to cause a heavy marble lintel to fall in her store. Thankfully, no one is hurt. She also discovers that one of her servants was blackmailed by Antiochus to ruin her dye. When the man confesses, Paul encourages Lydia to forgive him.

Lydia faces her worst fears when Antiochus finds Jason and brings her to trial before the citizens of Philippi. Jason tells everyone that her father was a thief and that Lydia worked with him while he committed his crimes. As Lydia calls on the Lord for strength, General Varus and the entire community rally to her defense. She has helped so many through her generosity and kindness, and has been an honest merchant for over 20 years. Marcus turns the tables on Antiochus, undermining all his arguments so well that the charges against Lydia are dropped.

Eventually, Lydia brings charges against Antiochus to court. Because of her bravery, several others in the community step forward to provide testimony about his duplicitous behavior and misconduct. He is banished from Philippi. Marcus stands by Lydia during this time as well, and she is able to let go of her feelings of being betrayed. Through God’s grace and Marcus’ steadfastness, she learns to trust again. The two unite in marriage, and their home is a meeting place for Christians for many decades.

Christian Beliefs

Every chapter of the book begins with a quote from Scripture. In a prologue, Lydia gives the testimony of her salvation in a letter to Paul. Rebekah learned the Law when she was supposed to be making sure her younger brother paid attention to his tutor. Later, although locked in her room, she heard the Scriptures being taught below. She teaches Lydia that the Lord will provide for them if they trust in Him. She also relates the lesson of manna and says that God can provide the bread of angels for Lydia’s heart if she will pray and ask Him for it.

Marcus spent three years chained to a Jewish man who taught him all about the God of Abraham and gave him faith that sustained him during his brutal slavery. He continued to seek God in the synagogues, but wondered when the promised Messiah would come. He met Luke in Ephesus and heard the Gospel. He accepted Luke’s teaching and was baptized.

Paul explains that Jesus fulfills the Jewish prophecies about the Messiah. He teaches Lydia and her household about sin and their need for a savior. The women accept Christ and are baptized by Paul. Lydia immediately feels the power of the Holy Spirit within her. She leans on her newfound faith to calm her fears and face Antiochus when he accuses her of being unscrupulous. Paul exorcises a young slave girl of the demons that tormented her and gave her the ability to prophecy.

Other Belief Systems

Lydia and her father occasionally mutter exclamations to unknown gods during times of stress. Eumenes tells Lydia that the gods blessed her when she was born. The Romans believe in Somnus, the god of sleep in whose valley no sun shone or roosters crowed.

Lydia contemplates the gods after her father dies. She believes the gods on Mount Olympus must have vanished or given up on humankind. She hopes that if there are any homes of blessedness in the afterlife, her father had made his way there. A healer once believed in the power of the god, Asclepius, to cure people but eventually saw no mercy or power from her prayers.

Authority Roles

Eumenes is a kind father who demonstratively loves his daughter, Lydia. He recognizes her fears and gently tries to help her overcome them. Lydia has assumed that his poor business skills are the reason they do not have more money, but she learns that he freely, and secretly, has helped his friends when they have faced hard times. In an era when women are not encouraged to work or even think for themselves, Eumenes defies tradition and presses his daughter to succeed in business and life.

Profanity & Violence

Lydia remembers General Varus telling her how the Roman soldiers like to use the makhaira for the killing blow because it makes them come close to their victim. Eumenes is nearly struck by a horse’s hoof, and then he stumbles down a hill, injuring himself. He arrives home covered in blood. Lydia later learns that Jason had trained that horse to rear on its hind legs and kick with its hooves.

Eumenes is whipped with three leather strips that have pieces of metal embedded in them. Lydia sees dried blood encrusted in the metal. Eumenes screams as his back and buttocks are torn into ribbons of flesh. Lydia knees Jason in the groin when he threatens to beat her for her father’s secret dye formula.

Marcus tells about his years as an Illyrian prisoner. He was taken as a slave after a brutal battle aboard a ship. He saw bodies floating in the water. He was chained and beaten for three years. Once, he tried to kill himself by wrapping the chains around his neck but was stopped by the man chained next him.

Later, Marcus managed to overpower one of the guards and get the keys to his chains. He released the other prisoners, and they all joined in a battle against their captors. Paul and Silas are beaten and flogged by Antiochus and the praetor of Philippi. They are chained in prison. Paul speaks of the putrid smell of wounds, vomit and excrement in the prison.

Sexual Content

Although never graphically explained, it is intimated that Antiochus wanted to buy a 10-year-old girl so he could sexually exploit her. Silas welcomes a woman with the reputation of being a prostitute to Lydia’s house to hear the Gospel.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Alcohol: Many characters, including Eumenes and Lydia, drink wine, but it is not done in excess. Leonidas comes into Lydia’s house, intoxicated. He vomits before falling asleep. Later he jokes about his consumption of wine.

Slavery: Lydia buys a young girl before she is sent to the slave market in order to keep her from Antiochus. She treats the girl more as a friend than a slave.

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