II Chronicles 36 is the last chapter of the Book of II Chronicles. It goes from the reigns of King Josiah’s successors, through the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E., to King Cyrus’ proclamation that exiled Jews can return to Palestine to rebuild the Temple.
A topic of interest to me as I read this chapter was name changes. According to II Chronicles 36:3, the King of Egypt made Eliakim king of Judah and Jerusalem and changed Eliakim’s name to Jehoiakim. “Eliakim” means “My God raises” or “My God sets up” (I loosely draw from Strong’s language here). “Jehoiakim” means “the LORD raises” or “the LORD sets up.” The two names essentially mean the same thing, only the latter one identifies God by his personal covenant name. The king of Egypt changed Eliakim’s name to a name that was devoutly Yahwist, Israelite, and similar in meaning to Eliakim.
A Gentile sovereign changes an Israelite’s name in at least three other cases in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 41:45, the Pharaoh changes Joseph’s name to “Zaphnathpanneah.” In Daniel 1:7, Nebuchadnezzar gives Daniel and his three friends new names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In II Kings 24:17, the king of Babylon changed Mattaniah’s name to Zedekiah. On the new names of Joseph, Daniel, and his new friends, there appears to be some difference of opinion as to whether those new names honored a pagan deity: Strong’s says “no” on every case except for that of Abednego, whereas the articles about these names in the Anchor Bible Dictionary seem to suggest that the new names originally could have honored a pagan deity, on some level, but they are in the Hebrew Bible in a distorted form. My speculation is that this could be because the biblical writers in these cases did not want to write a name that honored a pagan deity, or the writers were mocking the name change by themselves changing the names. The case of Zedekiah, however, is similar to that of Jehoiakim: the Gentile king changes the Israelite’s name to one that honors the God of Israel. “Zedekiah” means “Yah is righteous” (Strong’s).
Why would a Gentile sovereign change an Israelite’s name to one that honored the Israelite god? I found a variety of proposals: that the Gentile sovereign allowed the Israelite to pick his new name (most of the E-Sword commentaries, including Keil-Delitzsch); that the Gentile sovereign had to honor Israelite religion to prevent a revolt from Israel (IVP Bible Background Commentary), and that the Gentile sovereign was making a point with the new name—-Zedekiah’s meaning of “Yah is righteous” may be expressing the king of Babylon’s hope that the LORD would righteously punish Zedekiah if Zedekiah rebels. Within the Hebrew Bible, we do see that Gentile kings recognize and respect that the LORD is the God of Israel, even if the king does not worship the God of Israel or necessarily recognize the Israelite god as the highest deity: the King of Babylon made Zedekiah swear an oath of loyalty to Babylon in the name of God, presumably the God of Israel (II Chronicles 36:13), and Nebuzaradan, the captain of Babylon’s guard, attributed Babylon’s success against Israel to Israel’s deity (Jeremiah 40). Here is an idea: maybe the King of Egypt was changing Eliakim’s name to a Yahwistic name in order to remind Eliakim that Eliakim had sworn loyalty to Egypt in the name of the God of Israel, YHWH.
The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll Commentary refers to Radak’s view that the new name of Jehoiakim implies that, though people spurned him by choosing his younger brother over him to be king, the LORD raised or set up Jehoiakim as king. Could that imply that the king of Egypt is buttering Jehoiakim up, on some level: that the king of Egypt is not just exercising power by appointing Jehoiakim but is gaining Jehoiakim’s loyalty by presenting himself as the means by which the God of Israel is giving Jehoiakim what is his by right? Could the king of Egypt be playing on Jehoiakim’s resentment that his younger brother had been king instead of him? It is interesting to play with these ideas, but maybe Radak is over-interpreting. Eliakim and Jehoiakim mean essentially the same thing, only Jehoiakim contains God’s personal covenant name.
In any case, most commentaries that I read made the point that a king changing someone’s name was an exercise of power. It is interesting to me, though, that, in some cases, the new names recognized that the God of Israel had power. The Gentile king was trying to exercise power but recognized that what he could do was limited, and that there were other powers greater than him.