Tel Aviv, a large Israeli metropolis on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the newest cities in the Middle East.  It was founded by sixty-six families of Zionist settlers in 1909, and it received its current name only in 1910.  (The name comes indirectly from Ezekiel 3:15, where it actually refers to a place in Mesopotamia during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.)  Today, though, Tel Aviv is at the technological and economic heart of Israel, and the country’s second largest city after Jerusalem.  However, if predominantly Arab east Jerusalem is omitted from Jerusalem’s population count—it was captured from the neighboring Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1967—Tel Aviv is actually Israel’s largest city altogether.

If one stands on the beach facing the sea and looks to the left, however, it’s impossible to miss one of the oldest cities in the region, the peninsular town of Jaffa (or Joppa or Yafo).  Thus far, archaeologists have identified settlements in the area dating back to the end of the Stone Age (about 5000 B.C.), and other evidence of human habitation has been found for the subsequent periods.  The name “Jaffa” itself predates the arrival of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.  In fact, it first appears in a list of cities that had been captured by the pharaoh Thutmose III during his Palestinian campaign of 1468 BC.  Jaffa’s location and its reasonably decent harbor—the eastern Mediterranean is relatively poor in good, sheltered harbors—made it a desirable seaport, and that is presumably why it captured the pharaoh’s attention.

There is an amusing story—reminiscent of Homer’s famous “Trojan horse” as well as the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” from the “Arabian Nights,” and perhaps even ancestral to one or both of them—that survives from the time of Thutmose’s conquest of Jaffa.  It concerns a trick that was used by the pharaoh’s general, Djehuty,  to take the city after it had refused his demand that it surrender.  Djehuty commissioned the manufacture of two hundred baskets and placed a soldier in each one of these baskets, along with fetters and manacles.  He then had the baskets carried to the gate of Jaffa, along with the message that the Egyptians had been defeated and had given up their siege, and that they were now offering tribute.  The far-too-trusting rulers of Jaffa opened the gate and admitted the baskets and their carriers, thus permitting the invaders into the undefended heart of their city.

Thus, the story says, the forces of Thutmose III took Jaffa.  And the area remained under Egyptian control thereafter until the rise of the Philistines at around 1200 BC.

Curiously, however, another well-known story is set in Jaffa or, rather, just offshore, and it’s one that most people would probably not typically associate with the Middle East.  In classical Greek mythology, though most famously in the “Metamorphoses” of the Roman poet Ovid, the story is told of Cepheus, the king of Aethiopia; his wife, Cassiopeia; and their daughter, Andromeda.  Foolishly, Cassiopeia boasted one day that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful even than the Nereids, fifty maidens in the retinue of the sea-god Poseidon.  Enraged by her arrogance, Poseidon thereupon sent the sea monster Cetus to ravage the coast of Aethiopia.  As the monster’s attacks continued, King Cepheus was desperate to find a way to assuage Poseidon’s wrath.  Finally, he was instructed by the oracle of Ammon, far out at the oasis of Siwa in the western desert of Egypt, that the only way to mollify Poseidon was to chain his beautiful daughter, Andromeda, naked to a rock in the sea as an offering to the monster.

Happily, though, the great Greek hero Perseus just happened to be passing along the coast of Aethiopia, flying on his magic winged sandals.  (He was also, by the way, carrying the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa, a snake-haired creature who instantly turned anybody who looked at her to stone.)  Seeing Andromeda chained to the rock, though, it was love at first sight.  After gaining the promise from King Cepheus that, if he saved her, he could wed her, Perseus used his magical sword to kill the sea monster.  He married Andromeda, took her off with him to Greece to be his queen, and the two lived happily ever after.

When she died, Andromeda was placed by the goddess Athena in the northern sky, where she can still be seen near the constellations of Perseus and Cassiopeia.  And the rock to which she was chained as an offering to the monster Cetus can also still be seen just offshore from Jaffa.

Make of that what you will.  In this column, though, I would like to focus on Jaffa’s intermittent but significant role in the Bible.

The account given in 2 Chronicles 2:1-16 says that, when the Israelite king Solomon decided to build his temple in Jerusalem during the late tenth century before Christ, he entered into an agreement with Huram I (or Hiram I), who was the Phoenician king of Tyre, a city further up the coast to the north in what is today Lebanon.  As a result of that agreement, the Phoenicians floated great rafts of cedar wood from Lebanon down to the port at Jaffa, where the timber was taken ashore, transported overland up to Jerusalem, and eventually used in the construction of Solomon’s temple there.  (The “cedar of Lebanon” is still a prominent symbol for the small nation of Lebanon to this day, appearing, among other places, on the Lebanese flag.)

If that were Jaffa’s only claim to biblical fame, of course, it might be of interest merely to biblical historians and perhaps to overly-detailed tour guides.  But there is much more, and it’s of deep significance even for us today.

According to Acts 10, the apostle Peter received a revelation while visiting the town of Joppa—I’ll use the form of the name here that is familiar to us from the King James New Testament—in  which God commanded him to eat meat considered ritually unclean under Jewish law.  Symbolically, this indicated that it was time to take the gospel to the Gentiles, to non-Jews.

The importance of this event for the development of Christianity cannot be overstated. Without it, Christianity might well have remained merely a sect of Judaism.

By Peter’s time, King Herod the Great—great because of his achievements in engineering, architecture, and politics, not because of his moral stature—had built an artificial harbor up in his new city of Caesarea.  The new harbor was some distance northward, up the coast from Jaffa, which it soon largely replaced as the area’s premier seaport.

Acts tells us that Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed who was stationed in Joppa, “feared God.” In historical context, this suggests that he was among the fairly large number of Gentiles, often termed “God-fearers” by modern scholars, who deeply admired Jewish ethical monotheism but were unwilling to convert.

Strict observance of Jewish dietary and social restrictions would have severed their ties to family and friends, and circumcision understandably intimidated roughly 50 percent of potential proselytes. Soon after Peter’s vision, though, Christianity would become the “good parts version” of Judaism for such sympathetic outsiders.  By dispensing with social restrictions, dietary laws, and the requirement of circumcision, it effectively became the Judaism for Gentiles.

Peter drew the salient lesson from his experience: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35).  And, with the conversion of Cornelius, the Christian mission to the Gentiles had begun.

It was perfectly fitting and appropriate that Peter’s revelation came to him in Joppa, for that small and very ancient town is associated with yet another story illustrating the universality of God’s loving concern. According to the famous tale of Jonah the prophet, Jonah was commanded to preach repentance to the great city of Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria, a powerful and threatening superpower located at the easternmost extreme of Israel’s world. But, instead, Jonah took ship at Joppa, heading exactly the opposite way toward Tarshish, which was probably in Spain, the westernmost boundary of ancient Israel’s map.  He seems to have imagined that, by leaving Israel’s territorial waters, he could escape the jurisdiction, and the notice, of Israel’s God.

He was wrong.

Subsequently, having preached to the Ninevites, Jonah sat on a hillside and sulked because, in fact, they had repented. (He had obviously wanted to see the enemy’s capital city destroyed.)  And his irritation only increased when a plant died that had shaded him from the intense Mesopotamian sun.

“Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Very plainly, the Lord has been gently seeking for centuries to extend the vision of his people, to help us to grasp the full magnitude of the task of reaching the entire world with the fulness of the Gospel. He has done it gradually, so as not to overwhelm us. In this dispensation, our earliest missionaries to Brazil were German-speakers, sent to preach to German emigrants there. Only later did we begin to take the gospel, with remarkable success, to all Brazilians.

In earlier days, some of us imagined it sufficient — in order to check India off our list — to preach a sermon on the quay in Bombay. (I’m not making this up:  There are actually accounts of very early Latter-day Saint missionaries who, having briefly stepped off of a boat and preached an open air sermon at the wharf, thought that we had thereby acquitted ourselves of our duty to take the Gospel to the Indian subcontinent.)  Now we know better. President Spencer W. Kimball’s magnificent 1978 revelation on priesthood expanded our vision, and our responsibility, still further.  Taking the gospel to “all nations” is a bigger assignment than we had understood — and it’s much bigger than we could ever have managed in the early days of the Restoration.

In the Church’s first decades, faithful Saints lacking access to the records of their ancestors were sometimes sealed by adoption to other prominent members to whom they were unrelated. This seemed manageable. In 1894, however, President Wilford Woodruff announced by revelation that the Saints were obliged to search out and be sealed to their own ancestors, as far back as possible. Also that year, the Genealogical Society of Utah was established to make this feasible.  And new imaging and digital tools, unimaginable in the nineteenth or any earlier century, are now making this effort feasible as never before.

“For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.” (2 Nephi 28:30)

God doesn’t want to overwhelm us.  But he doesn’t mind stretching us.  And, if past experience is any guide, he will continue to do so into the future.  The small, ancient, dramatically-situated peninsular town of Jaffa is a powerful reminder of that.