Mini-Explainer: What's So Special About the Sea of Galilee?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 20 2012 9:50 AM

Mini-Explainer: What's So Special About the Sea of Galilee?

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Arab-Israelis enjoy spring water in Tabgha on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel on Sept. 2, 2011.

Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images.

As we told you earlier this morning, a late-night, possibly alcohol-fueled skinny-dipping adventure in the Sea of Galilee last summer is making things a bit uncomfortable for Rep. Kevin Yoder and his fellow Republicans this morning.

We might not know precisely what inspired the Kansas Republican to cast off his worldly possessions and jump into Israel's largest freshwater lake (although an educated guess would probably involve the booze), but we do know that the sea, the biggest freshwater lake in Israel, is a Christian holy site. Why exactly? 

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The Sea of Galilee shows up in all four Gospels, where it served as a backdrop for a pretty sizable number of Jesus' greatest hits. In the Old Testament, freshwater wells often served as significant meeting places because pretty much every household had to go there. It was also a great place to meet women. The freshwater lake, too, seems to have similarly been a center of life in the region—a really great place to get a large audience with minimum effort, perfect for an itinerant preacher. 

When Jesus walked on water, he was on Galilee. He recruited apostles Simon, Andrew, James, and John by nearly sinking their boats with incredible hauls of fish. The Sermon on the Mount and the Feeding of the Multitudes are usually pegged by geographically inclined Christians to the shores of the lake, too. In fact, the GOP group was in Tiberias during the incident, which doubles as a resort city and a base of operations for faithful Holy Land tourists looking to check out the sites of many of the best-known miracle stories.

Yoder has since apologized for "any embarrassment" caused by his plunge into Galilee, which, according to Politico, led to a 30-minute rebuke from Rep. Eric Cantor the next day. The group of lawmakers were on a tour of Christian and Jewish holy sites with the American Israel Educational Foundation, a trip that is something of a chimera of religious pilgrimage and U.S.-Israel bonding time. The group met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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