Tel Aviv is a major metropolitan and economic city in Israel. Although the city will often place second to Jerusalem in the hearts and minds of Israelis, its economic importance will always be far more significant. When Israel was reborn as the national homeland of the Jewish people on May 14, 1948, Tel Aviv was the capital. It was the center of Jewish economic life while Jerusalem was the center of Jewish spiritual life.
The city itself began as a suburb of the ancient town of Joppa, which is called “Jaffa” in modern English. Its Hebrew name is Yafo, and the root of the word means “beautiful.” The modern city of Tel Aviv is officially called “Tel Aviv—Yafo” because, as the modern suburb grew, it eventually swallowed up the ancient city. When we see the names Joppa or Jaffa in the Bible, it is a transliteration of the Hebrew Yafo, and we should think of the area now known as Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv—in the Old Testament
This city appears four times in the Old Testament. It sits upon a small hill overlooking the Mediterranean coast. With a natural port, its history dates back to the time of patriarchs.1 The ancient Egyptians maintained a fortress to protect this important coastal highway and seaway. Joppa appears in the Bible for the first time in the book of Joshua as part of the territory assigned to the tribe of Dan (Joshua 19:40–48). The Danites failed to conquer Jaffa, instead conquering the territory near modern-day Lebanon.2 Interestingly, it is the very last city listed in this distribution of the tribes’ territories.3
The second mention of Joppa is in the book of Jonah. When the prophet fled from his mission to offer the nation’s enemies a chance to repent, he ran to this port city. There, he found a ship traveling to the furthest known reaches of civilization, Tarshish. It is still possible to find a ship at the Jaffa port today, since it is one of the oldest ancient port cities still operating continuously on the Mediterranean. Joppa remained the area’s main port until 1938 when the Tel Aviv port replaced it. Later, modern deep-sea ports replaced the Tel Aviv port. The last two biblical references to Joppa mention its port as the transit point for supplies for building Solomon’s Temple and then rebuilding the Temple during the time of Ezra (2 Chronicles 2:16; Ezra 3:7).
In the New Testament
The ancient city of Joppa also appears in the New Testament on two occasions. First, it was where the apostle Peter prayed and raised Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36–42). The last instance was immediately afterward, when Peter had the vision of the sheet on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house (Acts 10:9–16). A family in Joppa today claims their house was passed down to them from generation to generation from Simon the Tanner himself. The Israel Antiquities Society even placed a sign recognizing it as a historical building.
Peter later referred to this vision on the roof in Acts 11 as he explained its unexpected and controversial meaning—God wanted to grant salvation to non-Jewish people. “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18). Tel Aviv was where God spoke to the apostolic leadership about sharing the gospel with the Gentile world! In that sense, Tel Aviv was the starting point for evangelism among the nations. As we now bring this controversial message back to the original hearers, our Jewish people, the gospel has truly come full circle.
1 Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450 B.C.E. to 600 C.E (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1999), s.v. “Joppa.”
2 The tribe of Dan conquered the area of Leshem, which lies in the archaeological site of Tel Dan.
3 Neusner and Green, Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, “Joppa.”