Tel Aviv (Jaffa) in the Bible

City of Jaffa (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I work in Israel a few times each year and when I do, I stay in Herzliya, a small suburb city just north of Tel Aviv. Herzliya has some fascinating history– it may have been the site of a Crusader town called Apollonia-Arsuf– but sadly no biblical history. Fortunately, nearby Tel Aviv does. Before coming to Israel, I had no idea that Tel Aviv was near the site of the ancient and biblical city of Jaffa. Originally, Tel Aviv was a Jewish community adjacent to a larger majority Arab port city, but now the former has largely absorbed the latter, though not without bloodshed. I only knew of Jaffa from the history books, namely its conquest by King Richard the Lionhearted during the 12th century, and to a lesser extent from an an extremely old episode of Doctor Who

But Jaffa’s history goes back much farther, even before the bible. Read on for more.

When the Israelites arrived in Canaan, there was already a settlement at Jaffa. Joshua chapter 18 begins a long section where the land of Israel is divided up between the various tribes, essentially by drawing lots:

And the men arose, and went away: and Joshua charged them that went to describe the land, saying, Go and walk through the land, and describe it, and come again to me, that I may here cast lots for you before the Lord in Shiloh. And the men went and passed through the land, and described it by cities into seven parts in a book, and came again to Joshua to the host at Shiloh. And Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the Lord: and there Joshua divided the land unto the children of Israel according to their divisions.

Joshua 18:8-10

When they finally got to the tribe of Dan, one of the borders of the land was the settlement of “Japho” (one of many variant spellings of Jaffa in the KJV, other bibles standardize on the name to some extent).

And the seventh lot came out for the tribe of the children of Dan according to their families. […] And Mejarkon, and Rakkon, with the border before Japho.

Joshua 19:40,46

Unfortunately for us, not much is said about the city in the early books. It clearly was an Canaanite city, but what challenges the Tribe of Dan had with the non-Israelite occupants is left unstated. But by Solomon, the city had clearly fallen under Israelite control and had become an important port city for commerce with nearby lands. How do we know? Because some of the supplies used to build the First Temple were shipped in through Jaffa:

And we will cut wood out of Lebanon, as much as thou shalt need: and we will bring it to thee in floats by sea to Joppa; and thou shalt carry it up to Jerusalem.

2 Chronicles 2:16

The next chronological appearance of Jaffa occurs in the Book of Jonah. That book takes place while the First Temple still stood, as a side story around the time of 2 Kings 14 where Jonah gets a small mention. Jonah is contacted by God to go and warn the city of Nineveh of its wickedness, but Jonah is a reluctant prophet and immediately turns tale and runs away. On his futile attempt to flee God’s reach, he goes to Jaffa and boards a ship to Tarshish, possibly Carthage. 

Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Jonah 1:1-3

Jaffa probably remained a prominent port over the successive centuries, even after the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Captivity. When the time came to build a new temple, again Jaffa was the port of choice for bringing in goods from Lebanon, echoing (perhaps deliberately) the role the city played in the earlier construction:

From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt offerings unto the Lord. But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid. They gave money also unto the masons, and to the carpenters; and meat, and drink, and oil, unto them of Zidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea of Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia.

Ezra 3:6-7

Jaffa continued to be a prominent city in the New Testament, but that will have to be another post. What I love about this city, now more commonly called Yafo in Hebrew, is its ancient tradition. It’s been around longer than Israel and was an important port in the region into antiquity. Though today it seems almost an afterthought, a quaint part of vibrant Tel Aviv, it is one of the places that I have most enjoyed visiting. (And you have to admit, the views of the Mediterranean are spectacular…)

Up next: A biblical weather interjection…




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