Religion as resistance
While the state was Egypt's great achievement, religion was Israel's. Inevitably, of course, there were and are religions all over the world that are normally an element of the culture within which they are born and within which they die. In Israel, however, religion was created in a completely new and radical way that made it independent of the general culture and enabled it to survive through every cultural change, subjugation, and assimilation. Religion became a kind of “iron wall” that Israelites used to separate themselves from the surrounding “alien” culture. However, this radical version was not yet completely identical with the ancient Israelite religion, which was inextricably embedded in the political structures of David's kingdom and the preceding, pre-state forms of organization. Only the religion of the Second Temple that emerged from the experience of exile, and then of course Judaism itself, constituted religion in its absolute distinctness and with its unshakable core. As an autonomous unity it then became the basis and the medium for resistance against the cultural and political structures of a hostile outside world.
Israel and Egypt's Route to Orthopractical Separation.
In Late Period Egypt, the orthopractical sacralization of the country corresponded to that of its way of life, with a vision of Egypt as the “holiest land” (hierotáte chóra) and of a templum mundi – all of which entailed an awareness of absolute uniqueness, based on a special proximity to the gods, or a “living community of the whole of Egypt with the gods.” The closest parallel to this development is the Israel of the Second Temple. Here, too, the orthopractical sanctity of life (in Hebrew, halakhah) as set down in the 613 commandments and proscriptions of the Torah, is linked to a special awareness of uniqueness. Uniqueness is also based here on a relationship with God, although this is not conceived in terms of living together, because that would be unthinkable for the transmundane Jewish God. This relationship stems from the idea of the Jews as “chosen” and from the covenant they had made with God. Orthopraxy means “adaptation to God.” “And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy” (Lev. 17–26, passim). However, it is also distinction, seclusion, and uniqueness – in other words, a very special form of identity. Living according to the law implies a conscious declaration of belief in a “normative self-definition” (E. P. Sanders). In this context, Israel and Egypt followed parallel paths in the Persian kingdom and Hellenism, respectively, even though the one path led to a history that changed the world, while the other ended if not in total oblivion, then at least in the subterranean countercurrents.