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.
- For more about this please see: Peter Der Manuelian (ed.), The
ancient Egyptian pyramid texts, 23, transl. J. P. Allen, Writings
from the ancient world /Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA,
2005, p. 437; also Susan Tower Hollis (ed.), Hymns, prayers, and
songs. An anthology of ancient Egyptian lyric poetry, vol. 8,
transl. J. L. Foster, Writings from the ancient world / Scholars
Press, Atlanta, GA, 1995, p. 196. See glossary in both and various texts passim.
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)
... 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
Below, taking someone’s name is putting yourself under his
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
- 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.