While we usually refer to Exodus 20 as the Ten Commandments, and many versions of the Bible add the heading "The Ten Commandments", the phrase is not actually used there in the text of the Bible. (It does, however, appear later on, in Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and Deuteronomy 10:4). Also, while we know that the original ten commandments were written in stone, the commandments in Exodus 20 are not written in stone. This happens in Exodus 24:12.

How do we know that these were the Ten Commandments given that the "Ten Commandments" were not referenced as such until later on?

This question (and its accepted answer) nicely addresses the differences in interpretations of Exodus 20 as the Ten Commandments, but how can we be sure that the Ten Commandments are what's listed in Exodus 20?

Furthermore, I once heard it suggested that what's written in Exodus 20 - the "you shall not"s - are promises, not commandments. This makes sense, especially as there follow some instructions that definitely are commandments (Exodus 20:23 onwards) - "do not"s instead of "you shall not"s.

Why the difference in language ("you shall not / do not")?

  • Also, regarding "You shall not", "shall" has fallen out of usage in modern English. Therefore, since translations try to use words that make sense to the broadest audience, the word "shall" has been dropped out of modern translations. (For example, can you tell me the difference between "shall" and "will"? "Will" has taken on the meaning of "shall".)
    – Richard
    Sep 26, 2011 at 11:47
  • @Richard You're correct of course on the shall/will thing. I was reading the NIV when researching the question which uses "shall" but it is of course interchangeable with "will"
    – Waggers
    Sep 26, 2011 at 11:54
  • [Removed obsolete comments]
    – Richard
    Sep 26, 2011 at 12:08
  • 1
    There really are three distinct questions here. Can these be separated out?
    – Ray
    Sep 26, 2011 at 18:17

1 Answer 1


I think one good way we can look at this and understand that that section was commandments instead of promises is by letting other parts of Scripture that either reference or comment on it help define it.

For example in the NT we find Jesus giving a sermon and instructing people on the way they should live. In several cases he clearly references the statements we find in Exodus 20 and expounds on them to show the scope of the commandments is even larger than sometimes understood.

Mathew 5:27-28 (ESV)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

This is clearly a reference to Exodus 20:14, and using Jesus understanding of it and how other people in Scripture used that passage in their own teaching, we can understand that it was indeed a command.

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