Sailing on the Sea of Galilee
Following his journey to the region of Tyre and Sidon, in the chronology of both Matthew and Mark, Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee. While the west and north sides of the lake was predominantly Jewish, the east side was inhabited by pagans, or non-Jews. It was part of the region known in Jesus' time as the Decapolis (Greek ten cities), a league of city-states established by the Roman general Pompey to preserve the Greek way of life and culture in Palestine, and to resist the Semitic influences of the Jews. It was to this predominantly Gentile region to the east and south of the lake that he now took his ministry.
In the footsteps of Jesus...
At the waterfront in Tiberias, our 28-member group boards the passenger ferry "Chorazin" (named for the town above Capernaum), sailing this day to Kibbutz Ein Gev on the lake's eastern shore. In Jesus' time, the west shore of the lake was predominantly Jewish, while the east shore was Gentile territory. By crossing the barrier between Jew and Gentile, symbolized by the lake, Jesus again showed he was not a Jewish-only Messiah, that his ministry of love and healing was for all people, regardless of cultural background.
(Above left) View from our excursion boat toward the 1,150-foot promontory where the Decapolis city of Hippos (Sussita) once stood; (Above right) reproduction of boat from the time of Jesus at Ein Gev on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee.
About halfway out, our guide, Doran, asks our pilot to turn off the engine, allowing us to scan Bible passages referencing the times Jesus and his disciples routinely crossed this lake moving between the west and east shores. Words fail when you try to express the emotions and the deeper sense of understanding you get from reading and discussing the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry in context with its actual setting, for example:
"Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town" (Matthew 9:1).
"Such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore" (Matthew 13:2).
"When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns" (Matthew 14:13).
"Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd" (Matthew 14:22).
"After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan" (Matthew 15:39).
"When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets" (Mark 1:19).
"Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him" (Mark 3:9).
"He got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha" (Mark 8:10).
"Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side" (Mark 8:13).
"He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore" Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat" (Luke 5:3).
"When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified" (John 6:19).
"Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading" (John 6:21).
"The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards" (John 21:8).
Boats are mentioned forty-three times in the Gospels in connection with Jesus' ministry and the working-life of some of his disciples.
(Above) From boat on the Sea of Galilee looking toward the site of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, at the southern end of the Plain of Gennesaret: Left, the steep cliff of Mount Arbel; Center, Valley of the Doves and the Horns of Hattin.
On this early November afternoon, the sky is clear and the water is calm. But, it isn't always so. The Valley of the Doves, the steep rift valley west of the Magdala townsite to our rear, often acts as a funnel, trapping the westerly winds, causing them to swirl over the surface of the land-locked lake stirring up sudden, violent storms. Although this can occur in summer, it is more common in winter. Such a storm, in March 1992, sent waves 10 feet high crashing into downtown Tiberias causing significant damage. According to Matthew, a similar storm struck Jesus and his disciples as they were, like us, sailing their boat toward the lake's eastern shore:
"Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, 'Lord, save us! We're going to drown!' He replied, 'You of little faith, why are you so afraid?' Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, 'What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!'" (Matthew 8:23-27).
To the Jewish mind, water represented the Abyss (Greek abussos "bottomless, unbounded, immeasurable depth"), a place of great peril, the bottomless dwelling place where evil spirits and Satan were confined. It is little wonder that the disciples were awed by Jesus' power over such forces. One of our group recalled another time when Jesus demonstrated his power over the destructive sea, and it came after one of the best known of the miracle stories, the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish:
"After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, 'Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.' Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself" (John 6:14-15).
Meanwhile, when evening came, Jesus' disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat and set off for Capernaum (In Mark's Gospel their destination is Bethsaida, off to our left, near where the Jordan flows into the lake). The wind began blowing hard, whipping the waters to a foam. Passover was approaching, the time of the full moon (John 6:4).
As Jesus sat alone on the mountain praying, he could see in the silver moonlight that the disciples were having difficulty making headway in the rough seas, "because the wind was against them." But, Jesus just sat and observed them for several hours trying to reach the shore. They had rowed three to three and a half miles across the north end of the lake, which at this point was 4 miles across, and had almost reached their destination but, their bodies were weary and their arms were undoubtedly sore from straining against their oars.
"About the fourth watch of the night (between 3:00 and 6:00 am) he went out to them, walking on the lake"*
* The original Greek, here translated as walking "on the lake," is "epi tes thalassa." Precisely the same phrase is used later in John (21:1), and there it is translated into English as, "by the Sea of Tiberias." According to the Daily Bible Study Series, by William Barclay, it means that Jesus was walking by the seashore, and the toiling disciples suddenly looked up and saw him. "It was so unexpected...that they were alarmed because they thought it was a spirit."
The Daily Bible Study Series, the Gospel of John, vol. 1 (page 208), by William Barclay (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia) ©1975 by William Barclay
Amazingly, he was about to "pass by them." Thinking he was a ghost, they cried out in terror. He spoke to them and said,
"Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."
Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down.
(Above left) Waves on the Sea of Galilee; (Above right) two fishermen on a tranquil lake.
It matters little that Jesus was walking on the lake or along the lakeshore, it is this type of beautiful story that John, a fisherman turned evangelist, would have loved to tell his audience!
After one of the more meaningful communion services we've ever experienced, on our boat floating gently in the middle of the lake, we docked at Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, directly opposite Tiberias.
Jesus' Life Home
Healing of the Deaf Mute in the
Decapolis, Feeding of the 4000