When it comes to seeming discrepancies and problems in the Scriptures, one of the more interesting and unique is that of “sin by command.” That is, there are times in the Bible when God seems to directly command a person to do something which could be considered a sin. This sort of command seems a difficult one to understand and deal with, and it is this type of contradiction, wherein the sinless God commands one of His followers to do something that seems sinful, that we will consider in this article.

In case my readers are not familiar with the sort of passages I mean when I mention God commanding someone to sin, we will consider some of them. Look, for example, at Hosea 1:2.

2. When the LORD began to speak by Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea:
“Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry
And children of harlotry,
For the land has committed great harlotry
By departing from the LORD.”

Certainly, we would not consider it wise to marry someone who had been a prostitute, and certainly not wise to marry someone who still was involved in this activity. But beyond unwise, such an action would seem to be downright sinful. When we consider the fact that “harlotry” in the Bible is often used as a symbol for idolatry, this gets even worse. Here was a woman who was probably an idol-worshipper and a prostitute, for the two usually went together. Surely it could not be right for any Godly Israelite to marry such a woman. Yet here the LORD commands Hosea to do this. Why would He do such a thing?

Hosea Marrying the Harlot

If we would consider the context, we would see that the LORD had a message to convey through the actions of Hosea. Hosea was writing in an idolatrous time, if we compare the time element given in verse 1 with the record of the book of Kings regarding the kings in whose reigns he prophesied. The actions of Hosea in marrying a prostitute were to symbolize the LORD’s relationship to Israel, a people whom He had espoused to Himself, yet who had prostituted themselves with other gods. This becomes clear when we consider Hosea 2.

2. “Bring charges against your mother, bring charges;
For she is not My wife, nor am I her Husband!
Let her put away her harlotries from her sight,
And her adulteries from between her breasts;
3. Lest I strip her naked
And expose her, as in the day she was born,
And make her like a wilderness,
And set her like a dry land,
And slay her with thirst.
4. “I will not have mercy on her children,
For they are the children of harlotry.
5. For their mother has played the harlot;
She who conceived them has behaved shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
Who give me my bread and my water,
My wool and my linen,
My oil and my drink.’
6. “Therefore, behold,
I will hedge up your way with thorns,
And wall her in,
So that she cannot find her paths.
7. She will chase her lovers,
But not overtake them;
Yes, she will seek them, but not find them.
Then she will say,
‘I will go and return to my first husband,
For then it was better for me than now.’
8. For she did not know
That I gave her grain, new wine, and oil,
And multiplied her silver and gold—
Which they prepared for Baal.

13. I will punish her
For the days of the Baals to which she burned incense.
She decked herself with her earrings and jewelry,
And went after her lovers;
But Me she forgot,” says the LORD.

So the LORD intended this odd behavior on the part of Hosea to illustrate what He was having to put up with in His relationship with Israel. The figure is extended in Hosea 3.

1. Then the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery, just like the love of the LORD for the children of Israel, who look to other gods and love the raisin cakes of the pagans.”

There is controversy here as to whether or not the woman spoken of here is the harlot Hosea married in chapter 1, Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, or a different woman. Some have tried to make the word translated “lover” here, rea’, mean “husband.” Out of 188 occurrences of this word, it means “neighbor” or “fellow” (as in one like you) most of the time. In some of the occurrences, it indicates a closer relationship, and is translated “friend.” Only three times is it used of lovers. Twice it is used in the Song of songs (Song 5:1 and 5:16,) but it seems to be pointing out the close friendship or companionship between these two lovers, and therefore it is doubtful that the word means a married couple. Moreover, the couple seems to be betrothed, but not married here. Jeremiah 3:20 then is the only other time it might be translated “husband,” as it is in the New King James Version. “Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, So have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel,” says the LORD.” Yet this could just as easily be translated “Surely, as a woman treacherously departs from her friend, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel.” There is no reason to make it be referring to a husband and wife here. In fact, considering the moral state of Israel at the time, the LORD might be quite deliberately using the word here, since there were many women in Israel living with men who were “friends,” not husbands at all. Probably the old King James translation of “friend” in Hosea 3:1 cannot be improved upon. I would lean toward the fact that this is not Gomer, but some other woman that is being spoken of.

The question then is who this woman is? We cannot know for certain. Apparently, she had been loved by Hosea before she became an adulterer (idolator.) Perhaps Hosea had originally been going to marry her before he was commanded by the LORD to do otherwise and marry a prostitute. I am certainly speculating wildly here, but Hosea being commanded to do this instead of marrying her might have led her to feel bitterness against the LORD, and led her to turn from Him to idolatry.

Whatever the case regarding this female friend of Hosea’s, it seems that Gomer is now out of the picture. Whether she died, which seems quite possible, or whether she left Hosea, we cannot say. But at this point the LORD commands him to love his friend, this woman who has now become an adulteress. She has not only fallen into idolatry, but also into slavery, it seems, as we read from the next verse.

2. So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver, and one and one-half homers of barley. 3. And I said to her, “You shall stay with me many days; you shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man—so, too, will I be toward you.”

Hosea is commanded to buy her out of slavery, and to keep her for himself, urging her to remain pure for him until the time they come together. If I am correct in my speculations, what must have started out as a very sad story for this couple comes to a happy and even romantic conclusion.

The point of this latter part of the story is explained in Hosea 3:4-5.

4. For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim:
5. Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days.

As Hosea wins to himself this woman he loved but who had gone astray from him and from God, so the LORD promises that in a future day a future Israel, in spite of their past sins, will turn to Him with sincerity, and they will enter into relationship with Him once again. So the story of Hosea, and the command to him to sin by marrying a prostitute, were for the purpose of teaching this important lesson. Thus we see the reason for the LORD commanding Hosea to do this, although we still have not explained how it is the LORD could have commanded someone to sin.

In this regard, I would point out that the law never commanded a man like Hosea not to marry a harlot. It forbids fathers from making their daughters harlots, as we see in Leviticus 19:29.

29. ‘Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry, and the land become full of wickedness.

A priest was forbidden from marrying a prostitute, as is clear in the commands to priests in Leviticus 21.

1. And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron…

7. They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for the priest is holy to his God.

14. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife.

Lastly, a woman who was married and found to have been impure before marriage was to be executed.

21. then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you.

This clearly had not been done to Gomer, as Israel was not following God’s laws as they should have at this time. Yet this is all we can find in the law regarding harlotry. As long as Hosea was not a priest, then, it was not actually a command for him to sin when the LORD commanded him to marry a prostitute. So while marrying a prostitute might be considered unwise, it did not actually violate any of God’s laws. As bad as it appears on the surface, God’s command to Hosea is not actually an example of “sin by command.”