The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake in N.E. Israel and one of the most well-known bodies of water in the world. Several names have been applied to the lake in the past, including “Sea of Chinneroth” or “Chinnereth” (Josh. 13:27; 12:3), “Water of Gennesar” (I Macc. 11:67), and “Lake of Gennesareth” (Jos., Wars, 3:506), while in the New Testament, it is called “the Sea of Galilee” or simply “the Sea” (Matt. 4:18; 17:27; John 6:1; etc.), and sometimes “the sea of Gennesareth” or “the sea of Tiberias” (Luke 5:1; John 6:1; 21:1). In Talmudic sources it is usually called yammah shel Teveryah (“sea of Tiberias,” Tosef. Suk. 3:9, etc.). The Arabs also called it Baḥr al-Ṭabariya. In Israel, the biblical name Lake Kinneret (Heb. יָם כִּנְרֶת, Yam Kinneret, or םָי כִּנְרוֹת, Yam Kinnerot) has been revived.
The Jordan River enters it from the north and flows out from the south. The lake occupies a section of the central Jordan Rift Valley. It covers an area of 64 sq. mi. (165 sq. km.). The level of the water surface, which varies considerably with the shift from rainy to drought years, averages 696 ft. (213 m.) below the sea level of the Mediterranean. The water is deepest, 144 ft. (44 m.) on average, northeast of the lake’s center.
The region of Lake Kinneret has a seismic character borne out by hot mineral springs on its bottom and on its circumference. The lake was created in its present form when, in the recent geologic past, its bottom subsided more strongly than the area south of it, where diagonally posed young rock strata testify to an uplift that created a sill preventing the drainage of Jordan and other waters coming in from the north. Whereas the lake is thought to have originally been more or less rectangular, streams entering it, in addition to the Jordan itself, deposited alluvial material, thus creating the Ginnesar Valley in the northwest and the Bethsaida (Buṭayḥa) Valley in the northeast and rounding off the north shore. At the same time, erosion at the Jordan’s outflow in the south contributed to giving the lake its present pear-like shape, with a north-south length of 15 mi. (23 km.) and a maximum east-west width of 10 mi. (16 km.). Alluvium deposited by the Yarmuk River in the south blocked the inflow of this watercourse into the lake and displaced the Jordan outflow to the southwest corner of the lake.
Although the waters entering the lake are fresh, brackish springs at the lake bottom and near its shore raise its water salinity; strong evaporation in the region’s hot climate further increases the water’s salt content. Measurements taken in the 1950s and 1960s show oscillations in salinity ranging from 250 to 400 mm/liter chlorine content, again to be attributed to the varying amount of water entering the lake; the more water fills the lake, the better the saline bottom springs are plugged by its weight, causing a further reduction in salinity.
Owing to its abundant water supply, warm climate, the fertile land in its vicinity, and the numerous fish in the lake, the sea has attracted man since prehistoric times; in fact, the most ancient human remains and artifacts found in Eretz Israel come from ʿUbaydiyya not far from its shores. In Neolithic times the inhabitants of the Yarmuk valley adjoining the lake engaged in agricultural activities (“hoe” agriculture).
In the Early Bronze Age, some of the largest cities in Canaan were founded there, in particular, Bet Yeraḥ, a site of some 60 acres (250 dunams). The Via Maris (Maritime Route), which passed its shores, contributed to the wealth of the riparian cities. Egyptian documents (Papyrus Anastasi I) mention the hot springs on its shores and their beneficent effects. In the Bible, the sea serves as a prominent boundary mark: it was the border of Sihon, king of the Amorites (Deut. 3:17); its western shores were in the possession of Naphtali, whose cities of Hammath, Rakkath, and Chinnereth were situated along its banks; most of the eastern shore belonged to Manasseh, and the tribe of Gad extended up to its southern end (Josh. 12:3; 13:27).
In the time of David, Geshur held part of its northeastern coastline, and after the division of the monarchy, the kings of Israel had to engage in combat with Aram for control of its eastern shore; in this, the Omrid dynasty was most successful. In 732 B.C.E., Tiglath-Pileser III captured the area from Israel and assigned the western shore to the Assyrian province of Megiddo and the eastern to Karnaim (II Kings 15:29). The lands west of the lake were a royal estate in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. The Ptolemies established one of their administrative centers (Philoteria) along its shore. Part of the territory of the city of Susitha (Hippus) bordered its eastern shore. \
Under the Hasmoneans, the entire area was Jewish. In 30 B.C.E., Herod received Hippus, and in 20 B.C.E., the Gaulan. His sons Antipas and Philip founded the cities of Tiberias and Julias (Bethsaida) on the seashore. In the time of Herod Antipas, the area around the sea was the main center of Jesus’ activities. It was on these beautiful shores that Jesus delivered sermons and performed miracles. Many famous sites are located around the lake, including Capernaum, home to at least five of the twelve disciples. The Church of the Beatitudes is said to be where the Sermon of the Mount was preached, and Tabgha believed to be the site where Jesus fed 5,000 followers from five loaves of bread and two fish, is marked by The Church of Multiplication. The nearby lakeside town of Migdal is the hometown of Mary Magdalene.
Under Roman rule, the western shore (Tiberias) and part of the eastern (Gaulan) were Jewish, while the rest were Gentile. The entire lake was later included in the province of Palaestina Secunda; in Byzantine times, many churches were built on its shores (e.g., Heptapegon, Capernaum, etc.). After the Arab conquest, it remained in the same province, which was renamed Jund al-Urdun (Jordan). The Crusaders kept a firm hold on the western shore and fought repeatedly to gain control of the eastern (the Terre de Sueth). The Mamluks included the lake in the mamlaka (province) of Safed and the Turks in the pashalik of Acre.
Beginning from the first decade of the 20th century, Jewish settlements were founded on and near the lake’s west and south shore (Migdal, Kinneret, Deganyah, etc.). The frontier drawn between the British Mandate over Palestine and the French Mandate over Syria included the entire lake in the former territory, together with a 1.1–2.2 mi. (1.8–3.5 km.) broad strip on the southern half of the east coast and a tiny 32.8 ft. (10 m.) broad strip along the Bethsaida Valley in the northeast. Under the Mandate, the settlement chain was strengthened in the west and south, and the Kibbutz Ein Gev was set up in the east. It engaged, together with two other kibbutzim, in lake fishing and the development of pleasure-boat trips and tourism on the lake and in the area.
After the 1948 War of Independence, the Israel-Syrian border remained unchanged, although the Ein Gev strip was declared a demilitarized area. More Jewish settlements (Ma’agan, Ha-On, Tel Kaẓir in the south and east, Almagor in the north) were added in the statehood period. The settlements around the Kinneret are mainly rural, while Tiberias serves as the urban center of the region.
Lake Kinneret was chosen as the National Water Carrier’s principal reservoir, completed in 1964; the water was lifted from the lake by the huge Eshed Kinnarot pumping station in its northwest corner. As the main source of water in Israel, the Kinneret’s levels are of public interest. Its low level is 698 ft. (213 m.) below sea level, while its high level is 685 ft. (208.9 m.) below sea level. In dry years, when the low level is reached, pumping is stopped. In contrast, in rainy years, when the high level is reached, the Deganyah dam is opened.
Growing Syrian aggressiveness (attempts at setting up military positions on Israeli territory near Ein Gev and in the Chorazin area, harassing of Israeli fishermen, etc.) became one of the sources of friction building up the tension that led to the Six-Day War. The control of the dominating Golan Heights by Israel in this war moved the border with Syria away from Lake Kinneret, which became an inland lake of Israel.
The Israeli Water Authority announced plans to replenish the Sea of Galilee with desalinated water in December 2017. The Sea of Galilee provides approximately 1/4 of Israel’s drinking water, and due to years of below-average rainfall, the sea had dropped to dangerously low levels. The low water level has increased the salinity of the reservoir, harming the water quality. The Israeli Water Authority extracts about 17,000 tons of salt from the Sea of Galilee each year to ensure its potability. The plan to pump in desalinated water and replenish the sea was estimated to take two years and cost $290 million.
Abel, Geog, 1 (1933), 163, 494–8; Picard, in: ZDPV, 55 (1932), 169ff.; Neumann, in: IEJ, 3 (1953), 246ff.; M. Schmorak, Atlas Yisrael (1961), V map 3; S. Yeivin and H. Hirschberg (eds.), Ereẓ Kinnerot (1950); EM, 4 (1962), 204–8.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Parched Sea of Galilee to be replenished with desalinated water, Times of Israel, (December 19, 2017).