Sea of Galilee


Located some sixty miles (one hundred km.) north of Jerusalem, its bed is but a lower depression of the Jordan Valley. The surface of the water is 685 feet (214 m.) below the level of the Mediterranean and it varies in depth up to 150 feet (47 m.). As the Jordan River plunges southward on its course from Mount Hermon to the Dead Sea, it enters the Sea of Galilee at its northern end and flows out of its southern end, a distance of thirteen miles (twenty-two km.). The greatest width of the sea is eight miles (thirteen km.), at Magdala. The view from the Nazareth road to Tiberias is beautiful. The bare hills on the west, except at Khan Minyeh (present Capernaum) where there is a small cliff, are recessed from the shore. From the eastern side, the western hills appear to rise out of the water to a height of 2,000 feet (625 m.), while far to the north can be seen snowy Mount Hermon. The eastern hills rise from a coast of half a mile (one km.) in width and are flat along the summit. The whole basin betrays its volcanic origin, and this accounts for the cliffs of hard porous basalt and the hot springs at Tiberias, famous for their medicinal value. The warm climate produces tropical vegetation—the lotus thorn, palms, and indigo. The Plain of Gennesaret on the NW abounds with walnuts, figs, olives, grapes, and assorted wild flowers. The fresh water is sweet, sparkling, and transparent, with fish in abundance. The Gospel accounts picture fishing as a prosperous industry here in biblical times, but today, instead of fleets of fishing vessels, only a boat or two is seen. On these shores Jesus called his first disciples, four of whom were fishermen, and made them fishers of men (Matt.4.18; Luke.5.1-Luke.5.11).

The Sea of Galilee is noted for its sudden and violent storms caused by cold air sweeping down from the vast naked plateaus of Gaulanitis, the Hauran, and Mount Hermon through the ravines and gorges and converging at the head of the lake where it meets warm air. Jesus rebuked just such a storm (Mark.4.39). Here also Jesus walked on the tempestuous water (Matt.14.22-Matt.14.34; Mark.6.45-Mark.6.53; John.6.15-John.6.21).

The Sea of Galilee was the focus of Galilee’s wealth. Nine cities of 15,000 or more stood on its shores. To the NW was Capernaum, the home of Peter and Andrew (Mark.1.29) and where Matthew collected taxes (Matt.9.9). It was the scene of much of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Below this, on the western side, was Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene; three miles (five km.) south was Tiberias, the magnificent capital of Galilee. On the NE corner was Bethsaida, the native town of Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John.1.44) and one-time capital of Philip the Tetrarch. Gergesa lay to the south. Of these towns—once thriving with dyeing, tanning, boat building, fishing, and fish curing—two are now inhabited, namely Magdala, consisting of a few mud huts, and Tiberias.——AMR



Setting.

To many the focal point of the whole region of Galilee is the nodetitle. It lies E of Lower Galilee in the great Jordan rift valley, about sixty m. N of Jerusalem. The mountains of Upper Galilee rise NW of it to the height of about 4,000 ft. above sea level, while the hills immediately E and W of the lake ascend abruptly to heights of about 2,000 ft. above sea level. This creates a sharp drop of approximately 2,650 ft. from the mountain tops down to the lake’s surface where the foot of the hills often abuts the lake. The main formation of the surrounding terrain is limestone overlaid with volcanic lava, broken at times with an out-cropping of basalt. The high tablelands of Bashan, Hauran, and Gaulanitis to the E of the sea are composed of black basalt and some diorite. Since the Sea of Galilee is located in the Jordan rift, it has been subject to destructive earthquakes.

Three major valleys adjoin this lake: the two plains formed by the northern entrance and the southern exit of the nodetitle and the plain of Gennesaret to the NW. The upper Jordan valley begins at the Biblical site of Ijon (c. 1,800 ft. above sea level) near the foot of Mt. Hermon which towers about 9,100 ft. above sea level and can be observed easily from the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This fertile and well-watered valley (prob. the land or valley of Mizpah in Josh 11:3, 8) spreads approximately nine m. S to the region of Abel-beth-maacah and Dan where it rapidly drops about 300 ft. in elevation. The major spring sources of the Jordan River are located in this area. Two smaller streams which feed the Jordan, the Bareighit and the Hasbani, form a small waterfall near Metullah as they leave this plain and drop to the Huleh valley. The two major streams of the Jordan, the Banyasi and the Liddani, spring up close to one another at Banias and Tell el-Kady respectively, considered the locations of the later towns of Caesarea Philippi and Dan. These four streams join together about five m. S of Tell el-Kady and flow through the marshes of the valley approximately ten m. to the small Lake Huleh. A few m. S of this lake the Jordan River reaches sea level and drops at a rate of about sixty ft. a m. for another ten m. through a rocky basalt gorge to the small plain which enters the Sea of Galilee situated about 685 ft. below sea level. The Jordan River is the major source of water in this lake. At the southern tip of the lake the Jordan exits through a broad fertile valley which has been heavily populated from ancient times to the present. The Yarmuk River flows into the Jordan from the E about seven m. S of the lake. The plain of Gennesaret with its average width of one m. enters the lake from the NW.

Description.

Looking down upon the Sea of Galilee from the heights of Safed, the lake looks harp-shaped (the meaning of the Heb. term from which the word “chinnereth” is derived) with the bulge to the NW, and is deep blue. It is truly a beautiful sight. The ancient rabbis used to say that “Jehovah has created seven seas, but the Sea of Galilee is His delight.” It reminds one of a Scottish loch surrounded by barren hills. The surface of the lake is set anywhere from 680 to 695 ft. below sea level. The fluctuation is due to seasonal and annual climatic variation, but most Israelis fix its norm at 685 ft. below sea level. From the entrance of the Jordan at the N to the southern tip of the lake is normally taken to be about thirteen m., though again opinions vary from twelve to fifteen m. The width in the N of the lake at its greatest distance between el-Mejdel on the W to the mouth of the wadi Semak on the E is usually understood to be seven and one-half m., though variations in this width range from five to eight m. Opinions concerning the sea’s depth fluctuate from eighty ft. in the more shallow areas to the maximum of 160 ft. The lake’s circumference is a little over thirty-two m., while the average quantity of clear sweet water in it is estimated at 4,562 cubic meters. Around most of the lake the beach is pebbly with a scattering of small shells. Several hot mineral springs are found on the shore, two of the more notable ones located at et-Tabgha in the NW corner and ’Ain el Fulīyeh about two m. S of modern Tiberias. The climate is tropical due to the low elevation, having temperatures which range higher than the uplands. As a result of this climate and the fertility of the soil in the plains surrounding the lake, the region is most productive. The harvesting of wheat and barley crops takes place about one month earlier than in the hill country. Wild flowers and oleanders fringe the shoreline.

The territory around the lake is varied and interesting. Moving E from the entrance of the Jordan past the site of Bethsaida, the mountain slope of the high plateau of Bashan drops almost vertically into the sea. This is broken only by the wadi Semak entering the lake due E of Magdal. The ancient site of Gergesa was perhaps located near the mouth of the wadi. Approximately three m. S of Wadi Semak, located high above the present town of Ein Gev, lie the ancient ruins called Sussita, prob. the site of the Decapolis city named Hippos. The ribbon of plain between the coast and the mountains broadens into the Jordan valley to the S as one reaches the southern end of the lake. Six m. SE of the lake, on the other side of the Yarmuk River, lies the ancient site of Gadara. Somewhere in this SW portion of the Sea of Galilee the event of the swine rushing headlong into the lake occurred (Mark 5:1-20), though the exact location is much debated. The Jordan valley S of the lake is considered the most fertile plain among those touching the sea. The Jordan exits from the lake on the W side of this valley, just S of the ruins of the ancient city of Khirbet Kerak. The ribbon type plain on the E is found once again on the western shore running eight and onehalf m. N. The Rom. capital of Tiberias, built on the slope of the western hills, is located near the northern end of this narrow plain shortly before it intersects the m. wide fertile and well-watered plain of Gennesaret. This plain is watered from the W by the wadi el-Ḥamam which contains the ancient site of Arbela high on its S rim overlooking the plain. Magdal lies on the southern side of this plain near the lake. Moving N toward the Jordan’s entrance there is a shallow vale through which a road to the N passes shortly before arriving at et-Tabgha with its hot springs. Two m. further Tell Hum displays the well-preserved ruins of the 3rd cent. a.d. synagogue of Capernaum. Wit hin the next two m., the entrance of the Jordan River is reached.

Products.

The small valleys around the Sea of Galilee have fertile alluvial soil, hot climates, and are well-watered. These conditions produce abundant crops of wheat, barley, figs, grapes, and vegetables. Concerning the region’s fertility, Josephus declares: “One may call this place the ambition of Nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together: it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if each of them laid claim to this country, for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruits beyond men’s expectation, but preserves them a great while. It supplies men with the principal fruits—grapes and figs continually during the ten months of the year, and the rest of the fruits, as they ripen together through the whole year” (Jos. War III. x. 8). Arbela was noted for its linen.

Fish was the major commodity from the lake, being found in great abundance and in over twenty-two different species. The best fishing was at the N end of the lake where the Jordan enters. Among the apostles, Peter, Andrew, John and James were fishermen.

Commerce,

Commercially the major industries of the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee were agriculture, dyeing, tanning, boatbuilding, fishing, and the curing of fish. From the latter the lake gained fame throughout the Rom. world. Major routes of trade passed by or over this lake. The eastern branch of the Via Maris touched the NW corner of the sea at the plain of Gennesaret. This was the major route from Egypt to Damascus and Mesopotamia. The produce from the mountain plateau to the E of the lake often was shipped across the lake on its way to the Mediterranean. The hot mineral springs along the lake’s shore brought multitudes to be healed. Mineral baths are still offered today.

Population.

The area immediately surrounding the Sea of Galilee is considered to have been the most heavily populated region of Galilee throughout history. Some maintain that in NT times there were nine cities around the lake, each said not to have a population less than 15,000. Such cities included Tiberias, Magdala, Korazim, Bethsaida, Hippos, Capernaum, Gadara and Kinneret (G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 447). The fertile well-watered valleys and warm climate were prob. the major cause for this dense population. Ruins of palaces, hippodromes, theaters, and baths built by the Greeks and Romans found on the lake’s shores also indicate a large population during the time of Christ. The eastern side of the sea was largely Gentile and constituted part of the region known as the Decapolis.

Storms.

The position of the lake in the Jordan rift below sea level with the high mountains to the E and W creates a natural condition for storms. The cool air masses from the mountain heights rush down the steep slopes with great force causing violent eruptions of the lake. Such tempests are not infrequent and are extremely dangerous to small craft.

Biblical history.

It is noticeably strange that this fertile and beautiful lake is only mentioned in the OT with respect to the land’s borders. The sea of Chinnereth forms part of the eastern boundary of the land which the Lord was giving to Israel (Num 34:11). Joshua 12:3 recounts the lake again as part of the land’s eastern border after the conquest under Joshua. Joshua 13:27 refers to the Sea of Chinnereth as the NW boundary of the land alloted to the tribe of Gad. Apart from these references the OT is silent concerning this lake.


Herod the Great ruled over this region from 37 b.c. until his death when his son, Herod Antipas, began to govern the area. Antipas moved his capital to Tiberias, and from there he ruled over this territory throughout the entire life of Christ with the exception of His infancy. Galilee was added to the realm of Herod Agrippa I in a.d. 40, and when he died in a.d. 44, parts of the Sea of Galilee came under the jurisdiction of Herod Agrippa II until a.d. 100.

With the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, Jewish scholarship moved to Galilee. Tiberias became the center of the composition of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Later it was the home of the Masoretes who did the masterful work of preserving the OT Heb. text. Even the Sanhedrin ultimately moved to this city.

Bibliography

G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1896), 439-463; W. Ewing, “Sea of Galilee,” ISBE (1929), 1165, 1166; D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957), 197, 198; S. Abramsky, Ancient Towns in Israel (1963), 209-209, 231-238; Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1967), 30, 31.