“Look! He has placed the land in front of you. Go and occupy it as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be discouraged!” Deuteronomy 1:21, NLT

Recently, we received a question from a reader asking why the translation team for the New Living Translation chose to use the word occupy instead of possess. Here is the answer from our Bible editorial team.

This is a very interesting question. In comparison to the handful of other English Bible translation I checked, “occupy” appears to be a unique translation of the underlying Hebrew word, yarash, by the NLT translators at Deut 1:21 (and elsewhere). The Hebrew dictionaries I referenced indicate a range of possible English translations for this word, for example “to seize, dispossess, take possession of, inherit, disinherit, occupy, impoverish, be an heir,” depending on context. One note on “occupy” from the NLT Study Bible at Deut 1:8 could also be helpful to us: “The land was already Israel’s because God had promised it to the nation’s ancestors centuries earlier. . . . Israel was not seizing new territory from its rightful owners but was taking possession of land occupied by squatters.” From this, I think we can assume the NLT translation team felt that “possess” and “occupy” are really close synonyms. In terms of the range of meaning of the English words, per M-W.com, definition 3a of occupy is “to take or hold possession or control of” and the example provided is in a military context. It seems like English translations that employ possess are taking advantage of M-W.com definition 2a of that word, which means “to seize and take control of.”

In light of all this, my best guess would be that the NLT translators wanted to make sure the English readers understood the nuance of not only ownership (because Israel already owned this land whether they were living in it or not) but also the importance of them physically living in the land, thus occupying it. One important thing to note about the NLT translators is that they place a very high value on making sure that their translation communicates whole ideas to contemporary, American English speakers in terms they understand well. For English usage today, I think “occupy” has strong military associations (I think of “troops occupying the West Bank” and other similar examples), so it would bring the military aspect of the conquest to the forefront in the mind of the reader. It seems like “take possession of” could sound archaic, or even a bit vague, to the ear of modern English readers, or it doesn’t quite fully convey the military context of the Bible’s use of yarash.

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