At one time, the answer to this would have been, Moses, but that can no longer be maintained. These 5 books are traditionally called either the Pentateuch or the “Law”, although laws are only a part, though a substantial one, of what they contain. The Hebrew name is “Torah”, which is broader, and means ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’. The contents of these five books were gathered/written/edited by an unknown number of people in different locations and at different times. How do we know this?
In Exodus 6, God revealed to Moses that his name was ‘Yahweh’ and that he hadn’t made this known to anyone previously. In Genesis 4, however, we’re told that, back then, people “began to call upon the name of Yahweh”, and continued to do so in the following chapters. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all built altars to Yahweh. Clearly we have here two writers/editors representing different, and conflicting, traditions.
Similarly, in the creation story in Genesis 1, the designation ‘God’ is given to a deity who doesn’t get his hands dirty but who, from somewhere far above, creates things with nothing other than words. In the creation story in Genesis 2, however, which is much older, the writer uses the name ‘Yahweh’ for a deity that comes down to earth and does get his hands dirty, making people from clay. These two different traditions are also found in the tale about the Flood, although here the stories are merged instead of being kept separate. In one tradition, Noah takes 1 pair of creatures into the ark, and the Flood lasts for 150 days. In the other, he takes 7 pairs, and the Flood lasts for 40 days and nights. There are many more repetitions, variants, inconsistencies and even contradictions, as we’d expect.
To understand what’s going on, we have to remember that the Israelites began as a tribal society in the central highlands of Canaan/Palestine. They wouldn’t have been able to read or write, but stories about particular people and happenings were repeated by word of mouth at their camp fires and, like all such folklore, grew in the telling. The gathering together, and writing down of such stories, is most likely to have begun after the clan system changed to a monarchy. Kings promote education, not only to keep accounts of trade and taxes, but also to have scribes who’ll record their marvellous doings, buildings and battles. Kings also like to have stories gathered and written down that all their people can identify with and unite behind.
Very soon, however, there happened whatever was the ancient equivalent of an ‘indyref’, and the 10 northern tribes declared independence. Confusingly enough, they retained the name ‘Israel’ but were also referred to as ‘Ephraim’, whereas the southern kingdom became ‘Judah’. It never rains, of course, but it pours. Before long the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians, who deported all the ‘important’ people. Some, however, would have made their escape to the southern kingdom, bringing folklore and legends along with them. Scholars call this the ‘E’ material, (useful in that it came from Ephraim). The southern kingdom’s stories and folktales are called ‘J’, (useful in that they came from Judah).
You’ll have guessed by now, that the southern kingdom was next for its comeuppance, with its ‘important’ people deported to Babylonia. Maybe these words from Psalm 137 will ring a bell for you : “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion” (Jerusalem). After 70 years, in 539 BCE, those who wished to return to Judah and Jerusalem were allowed to do so by the Persian king, Cyrus the ‘Great’, who was at least marginally more enlightened than other conquerors. A remnant of those who had been deported returned, the rest having become assimilated into their new surroundings
The situation the returnees found themselves in is, in fact, key to the question of ‘who wrote the 1st 5 books of the bible’. God’s ‘chosen people’ had been thrown out of their ‘promised land’. The 10 northern tribes had not only been deported, but also dispersed. They are now known as ‘the lost tribes of Israel’. Only the remnant of the 2 southern tribes was left. Their country, soon to be called ‘Judea”, was now devastated; their capital city Jerusalem wrecked; and the Temple of their God destroyed. In the days in which they lived, this meant that chief god of Persia, Ahura Mazda, had defeated and therefore replaced the god of Israel, Yahweh.
How could this be explained, and how could it possibly be recovered from? They needed a national narrative, reminding them of what God had promised to them, and detailing His conditions which they had repeatedly failed to meet. The promises would inspire them to start again, and their failures would challenge them to mend their ways. In the following post, I’ll give you my thoughts on how this was achieved.