I noticed two places in the book of Kings where a king changes the name of his vassal king. One is found in 2 Kings 23:34 where Pharaoh Necho changed the name of his vassal king to Jehoiakim. The other one is in 24:17 where Nebuchadnezzar changed the name of his vassal king to Zedekiah.

What was the motive behind this custom?

I found this in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament on 2 Kings 23:34,

The name change was somewhat minimal, as the theophoric element (God’s name contained in the name) was altered, from El- (generic for god) to Jeho- (for Yahweh). The name change probably had to do with a loyalty oath to a new overlord, which the Assyrian kings had also done. In the previous generation, Psammeticus I of Egypt (father of Necho) was renamed Nabushezibanni by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal when he was installed as a district ruler. Notice also the name change for Daniel and his friends (Dan 1:6-7).

However, Its very unclear how "loyalty oath to a new overlord" would facilitate this name change, especially in light of the fact that Elyakim/Jehoiakim name has been altered from El to Yahweh which is an exclusive reference to the Hebrew god!

Any suggestions as to why the overlord would change the name of his vassal king to make it more "Hebrew-like" would be appreciated.


4 Answers 4


There is quite a lot to be said about name and the changing of names in the ancient world, generally speaking. Quite a lot of philosophy and religious thinking, all mixed up. In order to understand why an overlord would change the name of his vassal king we should look a little bit outside the pages of the Bible and see some ancient customs and practicalities. So please bear with me a little. I am trying to present the very short story.

First of all, in the ancient world the name of a person or of a deity is closely associated with that person or deity. The name is not just a label. For instance, in ancient Egypt the name is almost an avatar of the person, it is like a part of the personality. And, what is important for your question is that people used to believe that the knowledge of the name gave the knower control over the owner of that name. Knowledge of the name is connected with influence and control of the named. Now please bear this in mind, we shall come back here shortly.

Not far at all from the biblical world, Philo of Alexandria has some interesting ideas. Philo can be taken as a sort of a bridge between philosophy and linguistic teaching of that age and the Bible and therefore he is of some help for us. See what Philo is saying:

“The name is a second thing attaching to the basic matter, like a shadow which accompanies the body.” ( Philo, De Decalogo, 82)

So, the name is like a shadow accompanying the reality, therefore people’s names can be interpreted as expressing the nature of persons. This is Philo, please see more in (Philo, De Mutatione Nominum, 121).

Well, this was quite a long discussion in the Greek world. For there are names describing the inborn nature of a person and there are names describing it from a rather social/legal point of view. Greek philosophers’ debate was: ὄνομα is all about νόμῳ or all about φύσει? Or both? They were talking about ὄνομα κύριον (lat. nomen proprium) and ὄνομα προσηγορικόν (or προσηγορία, lat. nomen appellativum). it is important to take note of this difference between on one hand names describing the inborn nature and on the other hand names describing things related to social/legal status.

  • A very good “briefing” on this in G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich (Ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 10, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, (5:245-246).

I shall try to summarize the TDNT paragraph: administratively the name of a person, ὄνομα, may refer to records or lists establishing its owner’s rights and obligations. Therefore ὄνομα may also have the sense of “legal title”, or “item in an account”, or “public title” or may be used in relation to property belonging to the title of someone.

Now let’s return to the Biblical world:

  • By naming the animals Adam exercises dominion over them:

Genesis 2:19-20 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field ... (NASB)

God is giving new names in places like Genesis 12:2-3; 32:29 etc. I will not insist, as I am afraid these are not really relevant for your question. Yet in:

2 Samuel 12:27-28 Joab sent messengers to David and said, "I have fought against Rabbah, I have even captured the city of waters. "Now therefore, gather the rest of the people together and camp against the city and capture it, or I will capture the city myself and it will be named after me." (NASB)

  • more clearly in ESV:

... lest I take the city and it be called by my name.(ESV)

  • The name of the city is changed, which means taking control over it, establishing a right of possession and to subject that city to one’s power.

  • Below, taking someone’s name is putting yourself under his protection:

Isaiah 4:1 And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.” (ESV)

  • Below, second names given express new legal status in a non-Jewish/pagan social and religious context, yet do not imply change of religion:

Genesis 41:45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. (ESV)

2 Kings 23:34 And Pharaoh Neco made Eliakim the son of Josiah king in the place of Josiah his father, and changed his name to Jehoiakim. But he took Jehoahaz away, and he came to Egypt and died there. (ESV)

Daniel 1:7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (ESV)

  • By giving someone a name, one establishes a relation of dominion and possession towards him and relates it to the overlord’s own sphere.

The change of a name may have multiple reasons. One is of course of a religious matter. But this is only one reason among many. And perhaps in the context of an overlord/vassal king relationship, this is not necessarily a major one. I would recommend a rather old but still relevant paper: G. H. R. Horsley, Name Change as an Indication of Religious Conversion in Antiquity in "Numen", vol. 34, Fasc. 1 (Jun., 1987), pp. 1-17

Now trying to respond to your question: why an overlord would change the name of his vassal king? First of all and generally speaking, to exercise power and control over the named. The change of the name would imply new rights and obligations for the named, would "trade mark" the named as belonging to the overlord, would put the vassal king under the overlord's protection, etc.

Perhaps it is almost like in the principle of coverture from the traditional English common law. This is in Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) BOOK 1, CHAPTER 15 Of Husband And Wife, III I am rewriting this for our case: the very being or legal existence of the vassal king is incorporated and consolidated into that of the overlord. And this is stated by the changing of the name. This I think it could be why an overlord would change the name of his vassal king.

Now coming back to your initial question:

Wouldn't it make more sense for the overlord of Egypt to give the Israelite vassal king a new Egyptian name with a reference to Horus or some other egyptian deity? Well, in the historical context of that time, not really. There are some reasons that we can grasp, to explain the change from Elyakim, אֶלְיָקִים “God sets up” to Jehoiakim, יְהוֹיָקִים, “Yahweh will set up”.

I would suggest 3 possible explanations. From my point of view, I would go for the first one.

First: a new Egyptian name with a reference to Horus or some other Egyptian deity is necessary indeed, if the king is changing religion too. Whereas Elyakim / Jehoiakim is not changing religion. He becomes a vassal of Neco, still keeping his Jewish beliefs. The change has only strategical, political and economical grounds and implications. In this case, the name of the king may remain attached to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Yahwe / Elohim).

The fact that Neco is giving the new name means that from now on the Pharaoh will exercise the power of a suzerain over the Kingdom of Judah by imposing a tribute on the land. There are no religious implications, the king of Judah and the people of the kingdom of Judah are not required to accept Egyptian gods. We can see this as we read about the consequences of Paharoh’s actions:

  • First, Pharaoh Neco imprisons Jehoahaz, Eliakim’s predecessor:

2 Kings 23:34 ... he [Neco] took Jehoahaz away and brought him to Egypt, and he died there.… (ESV)

  • Then Pharaoh installs Eliakim/Jehoiakim to reign in Jehoahaz’s place:

2 Kings 23:34 And Pharaoh Neco made Eliakim the son of Josiah king in the place of Josiah his father, and changed his name to Jehoiakim ... (ESV)

  • Finally, Pharaoh Neco forces Judah, through his vassal king Eliakim/Jehoiakim to pay a large tribute:

2 Kings 23:35 And Jehoiakim gave the silver and the gold to Pharaoh, but he taxed the land to give the money according to the command of Pharaoh. He exacted the silver and the gold of the people of the land, from everyone according to his assessment, to give it to Pharaoh Neco. (ESV)

As we can see, there is not a word about a religious matter whatsoever. If we check up in 2 Chronicles 36:1-8 or even in Jeremiah 22:10–12 it is just the same. Indeed, Jeremiah is accusing religious reforms from the reign of Jehoahaz (Jeremiah is calling him by the name of Shallum), yet these reforms were related to accepting various deities and cults besides the God of Israel.

Jehoiakim is described as a cruel and oppressive king, who murdered those who opposed him:

Jeremiah 26:20–23: There was another man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Uriah the son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim. He prophesied against this city and against this land in words like those of Jeremiah. And when King Jehoiakim, with all his warriors and all the officials, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death. But when Uriah heard of it, he was afraid and fled and escaped to Egypt. Then King Jehoiakim sent to Egypt certain men, Elnathan the son of Achbor and others with him, and they took Uriah from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who struck him down with the sword and dumped his dead body into the burial place of the common people. (ESV) See also Jeremiah 36:1–32

However, the king’s reasons for doing this seems to be rather political and not religious. Jehoiakim’s religious reforms are such as during his reign, idolatrous practices of the Manasseh era were reintroduced, but that’s all.

Therefore, as Elyakim / Jehoiakim is not changing religion, as he becomes a vassal of Neco and this change has only strategical, political and economical grounds and implications, there is no reason why he would receive an Egyptian name with a reference to some Egyptian deity.

A second possible reason, it might be something related to J and E. A textual analysis might reveal something. I am not very happy with this.

A third possible reason: this would turn everything into a sort of James Bond story (LOL). Let’s have a look at the historical context, briefly: Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. Neco is killing Josiah for fighting against Egypt at Magiddo; Jehoahaz (Josiah’s son) is anointed as a king in Judah, yet his policies are not in favor of Egypt. Neco imprisons Jehoahaz, who will eventually die in Egypt. Then Neco is installing his own man, Eliakim/Jehoiakim and is making sure this one is safe. The Pharaoh is in need to secure Egypt against Assyrians. The Assyrians had a very fierce army. Organized rebellion against them was impossible. So there was safer for everyone not to let the Assyrians and especially the new incoming Babylonians know, that Judah was in a special relationship with Egypt. How it comes that Jehoiakim is becoming a vassal of Nebuchadnezzar too? Was it ever possible to be a vassal to 2 different and opposing superpowers? Is Jehoiakim a sort of a „double agent”?

2 Kings 24:1-2 In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him ... (ESV)

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon imposed another tribute that Jehoiakim payed for three years. Why did he rebel against Babylon, and not against Egypt? Was it that there was a sort of secret plan of Neco + Jehoiakim to resist Babylon’s expansion?

2 Kings 24:7 And the king of Egypt did not come again out of his land, for the king of Babylon had taken all that belonged to the king of Egypt from the Brook of Egypt to the river Euphrates. (ESV)

Was this treatise part of the Egyptian’s effort to stop Babylonians, as Egypt’s power was in decline? And was it necessary to keep it secret?

Last but not least: have I read to much of mystery literature, isn’t it LOL

To end it up, I repeat the reason that I think is the one: as Elyakim / Jehoiakim is not changing religion, as he becomes a vassal of Neco and this change has only strategical, political and economical grounds and implications, there is no reason why he would receive an Egyptian name with a reference to some Egyptian deity.

  • Nice work +1. There is however one probelm, wouldn't it make more sense for the overlord of Egypt to give the Israelite vassal king a new Egyptian name with a reference to Horus or some other egyptian deity? Why would he change Elyakim (El is a generic name for god) to Jehoiakim (Jeho or Yahweh which is an exclusive name for the hebrew god)? This was part of my original question!
    – bach
    Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 1:33
  • @Bach Yes indeed, you are right, I somehow lost it. As it was to much for a comment, I altered my answer. Please check up the addition I made at the end of the answer. Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 20:37

I humbly add this: while renaming someone on the throne would be a recognition of subservience to the one who renames, using the names of the culture of the people being ruled would be an advantage, would it not? It would create an "our guy" type of identification, rather than a weak, servant of another country, type of "leader." Second, wouldn't it be possible that there is some recognition of the the reputation of Jehovah? The identification with Israel is unmistakable, and the acts done by Him were actual. In some ways, this would be a back-handed recognition. Third, spiritually speaking, aren't the names recognizing God and His attributes, testifying of the weakness of man's schemes? God is who He is, and His attributes are real, even though man "mucks things up" and falls far short of His glory. Thank you for considering the admitted speculations of someone looking for an answer to the same question. Sorry if I muddied the waters.

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As I've pointed out in other posts, attributing motive to practices is fraught with danger. Even if one appeals to scholarly writings on the subject they are likely to contain speculation dressed up as fact.

That being said, I might speculate that it might be a handy way to sort people. By including important and even defining information in a person's name one can know more of who they are than by simply transliterating their foreign name. For example, when people came to the US as immigrants through Ellis Island their names were not faithfully rendered by the immigration agents but would often be Americanized, shortened or if they were "weird", simply made up. My own family name was shortened and modified simply, I believe for convenience and possibly to facilitate assimilation.

Now, the scriptures are a "divine history" and so we might expect this practice to have interest to the divine story and so the names might be significant to the intended audience, and might be designed to perpetuate the practice of naming one's children in a way that honors YHVH.

Again, mere speculation but based on personal and contemporary history as well as contemporary and historic naming practices in general.


Why the name change?

In Ge 2:19 God formed יצר the beasts from the earth. The 'gate' צר , meaning righteous revelation, is used to form the words dominate יְצִירה and besiege תָצוּר . This is a possible source for the NT saying that in previous times the kingdom was taken by force; there was a righteous צ revelation ר.

Following the forming of the animals they were given to Adam to be named, and naming took on the implication that the one doing the naming had dominion.

This practice is a part of general revelation, in that all men knew of it, seeing how Adam was all men at the time. The knowledge was passed father to son to Babel, where other peoples retained the practice even though they did so in other languages.

Not only were creation stories transmitted orally, but many of the other doctrines of Gen 1-11 were passed on and preserved orally in an imperfect way.

See Rashi on Ge 2:19: "And God formed from the earth: This “forming” is identical with the “making” mentioned above (1:25): “And God made the beasts of the earth, etc.” But it comes here to explain that the fowl were created from the mud, because it stated above that they were created from the water, and here it states that they were created from the earth (Chul. 27b). It also teaches you here that at the time of their forming, immediately on that day, He brought them to man to name them (Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan, ch. 1). And in the words of the Aggadah [Gen. Rabbah 17:4], this יְצִירה has the meaning of domination and conquest, like (Deut. 20:19):“When you besiege (תָצוּר) a city,” meaning that He subjugated them under man’s dominion."


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