For centuries, numerous nations and religions have considered the Land of Israel as holy. This is especially more so in the Land of Galilee. The uniqueness of this “exceedingly small portion of the earth”, as Mark Twain would put it, in terms of climate, topography, plants and animals, breathtaking landscapes, importance as a global trade route, and the addictive air of its historical sites, is awe-inspiring.
Every species of plants you can imagine can grow here. It’s one place on the planet where opposites can coexist – it’s a land of contradictions. It’s here, and only here, that winter or temperate plants can grow alongside their desert, tropical or arid counterparts. And partly because of this reason, the Sea of Galilee and the area around it have confused, surprised and inspired – and continues to do so – philosophers, thinkers, tourists, archaeologists, scientists, and historians.
However, surprises, ironies and inspirations don’t just stop at the land’s unique features, miraculous and historic events have happened on this lake and around its shores. Yet, these events occurred within two- or three-mile radius around the lake’s shores, and history books, the Bible and the Talmud don’t seem to capture them conclusively. It’s even more confusing to note that Jesus achieved so much during his short time in the Gospel ministry, and all that occurred within that small radius.
Not to mention, the birth of Christianity during the first century took place here. Today, archaeology continues to reveal missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Let’s learn about the secrets that Shelley Wachsmann shares with us about this area in his book Understanding the Boat from the Time of Jesus: Galilean Seafaring.
The Sea of Galilee
This isn’t sea; it’s a freshwater inland lake whose tributary is Jordan River. The Hebrew Scriptures – the Talmud – mention the lake as a yam or ‘sea’ to mean a water body, regardless of its size. The lake isn’t longer than 13 miles (21 kilometers) long and 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) wide when it’s flooded. In between the Hula Swamp and the Dead Sea in the north and south respectively, lies the lake. This location of the lake is in the Jordan Valley. The lake is what remained of a larger water body whose name is Lisan Lake, which retreated, leaving behind what’s today referred to as the Jordan River System.
If you read the Talmudic sources, they refer to the lake as Yam Kinneret (Sea of Kinneret). No one knows exactly how that name came about. However, conspiracy theories abound. One such theory refers to its origin as kinor, which is a lyre in Hebrew. The lake, when observed from above, has contours, which are somewhat parallel, and thus their resemblance to the strings of the musical instrument. Another theory mentions of its origin from kinnara – a sweet fruit coming from a tree, which grows nearby, whose species is Ziziphus spina-christi. Nonetheless, many theories give the lake its famous name based on important regions or cities around the lake.
Despite its numerous names (e.g. Tiberius, Kinnarot, Taricheae, Gennesareth, etc.), none comes earlier than Kinneret. The latter derives from Kinnarot, which is the name of the city situated on the northwestern shore of the lake. The city was at its peak of development during the Bronze and Iron Ages before the Assyrians invaded it some seven centuries before the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy.
A new name Biq ‘at Ginosar arose during the Assyrian period, and it referred to the Ginosar Valley, which lies on the northwestern shores of the lake. The region spanned between Kinnarot and Migdal in the north and south, respectively. This is exactly the spot where archaeologists discovered a first-century Galilean boat in 1986 when the lake’s waters receded, because of severe drought. In spite of that fact, Biq ‘at Ginosar remains one of the most fertile places on the planet, and as a Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, pointed out during the first-century A.D.:
Thanks to the rich soil, there is not a plant that does not flourish there, and the cultivators in fact grow every species; the air is so temperate that it suits the most diverse varieties. The walnut tree, which is the most winter-loving, grows luxuriantly beside the palm tree, which thrives on heat, and side by side with the fig and olive, which require a milder air. One might deem it nature’s crowning ambition to force together in a single spot, the most discordant species, and that, by a healthy rivalry, each of the seasons, as it were, wishes to claim the region for her own.
If you read the New Testament – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you’ll find reference to the lake as the Sea of Gennesaret. However, most commonly, the Gospel books call the lake the Sea of Galilee. In addition, the books sometimes refer the lake to as the Sea of Tiberius. This could be because no city larger than Tiberius has ever withstood the test of time. Jesus’s disciples kept a record of his actions and words, but no one, as yet, has found a personal account of Himself.
The shores of the ‘sea’ of Galilee are exceedingly fertile, especially in the northwestern area around the lake, which lies between Kinnarot and Migdal. This area, also known as Biq ‘at Ginosar, has attracted lots of spotlight, because every plant species coexists there. Most importantly, various nations and religions of the world consider the Land of Galilee, and Israel in general, as sacred. Many historic and miraculous events have occurred in this region.