Let's dive into that history, beginning with God's commands to the Israelites to be holy, which meant they were to separate themselves from the unholy cultures that surrounded them in Canaan. The Old Testament also records God's giving to the Israelites a narrow land of milk and honey distinct from the desert areas to the east.
Separation from other cultures was difficult, particularly in Canaan. God could have given the Israelites some out-of-the-way venue. Instead, He placed them on a strip of west Asian ground that forms the land bridge that any Egyptians, Babylonians, or Macedonians out to conquer the ancient world had to march through. Either God made a mistake equivalent to dropping a person into a shopping mall and commanding him to be a hermit-or He was forcing the Israelites, like it or not, to become a transforming influence on other cultures.
Which was it? Forcing people to do what they otherwise would avoid is one of God's clear patterns of behavior; the book of Jonah shows this process. A William Ewer/Cecil Browne jingle about Christian anti-Semitism (often attributed to Hilaire Belloc and others) goes, "How odd of God / To choose the Jews, / But not so odd / As those who choose / the Jewish God / And spurn the Jews." A parallel ditty about Israel's location could go, "How odd that God / said 'Be apart' / Yet placed His people / at their start / in crossroads / of the world trade mart."
Actually, there's no mistake, and nothing odd about it. Old Testament commands never to sin cannot be met by sinful man, so they bring us face-to-face with the need for forgiveness through Christ. Old Testament commands to separate also could not be met, so they pushed some Israelites to see that they had no choice but to be a light to the gentiles, transforming those cultures in order to stay alive themselves.
And so the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, almost always living among other peoples and confronting other cultures, helped to convert some of their neighbors. When they left Egypt, a mixed multitude of non-Israelites went with them. When they settled in Canaan amid many other nations, they intermarried and brought into Israel people like Ruth, the great-grandma of King David.
Israelites tried to hack out of the jungle of faiths that surrounded them a holiness theme park in which everything-laws, customs, food, clothing-would point to God's holiness. Not helped by their location, they failed. And when the giant grindstones of Assyria and Babylonia came up against Israel's stone tablets, sparks flew. The captives in Assyria became appeasers, giving up what faith in God remained among them in order to become an ordinary part of the imperial population.
Captives in Babylonia like Daniel, Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego, though, became transformers, studying Babylonian culture and then influencing kings Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus to believe in God. Transformers always had to fight a two-front war. They had to battle appeasers who could give up faith in God in return for easy acceptance by the idol worshippers around them. They also had to struggle with separatists who would hold tightly to the light God had given them, but hide it under a basket for fear that others would see it and snuff it out.