It's tempting to brush past some portions of the biblical narrative because they seem somewhat redundant to what has gone before. Knowing that the archaeological record paints a different picture than the actual scriptures can also feed a dismissive attitude. It helps to recall that the point here is to draw some spiritual truth from what is written, even if that truth is contrary to the point of the narrative. In Numbers 21, there are some stories about how the Israelites were victorious in combat because God wanted them to be, and there is the story of the magical bronze snake.
There's a reason that we say that history is written by the victors. Whether we're talking about one nation conquering another or someone getting fired from a job, the people who remain in control in a certain context get to decide how to frame events. Sometimes we misremember events, and sometimes our perspective is different enough from someone else's that we interpret events completely differently. Mixed in with that faulty memory and difference of perspective are the occasions in which we blatantly lie, usually because we believe that we need to protect ourselves somehow. That protection may be as simple as not wanting to look foolish, but when we proclaim an altered history, we miss an opportunity to learn from the actual events.
Many times, we just become so convinced of something that we can't really see things through a different lens. Once we completely believe that a friend has betrayed us, it's hard to shake the idea and trust that person, whether there's actually been any betrayal or not. When we believe something, it affects the way we act and the way we see other people. If you believe that you're ugly, you'll assume that everyone else thinks so, too. You might be suspicious if someone asked you out on a date. If you think you're doing a lousy job at work, you'll either assume that everyone else knows it, or you'll try to hide it. When every comment that a co-worker makes gets filtered through that lens, it's tough to have honest and productive relationships. If you believe that a supreme being is completely in charge of all that happens, you'll look at events differently than someone who assumes that there is a scientific explanation for everything.
A big problem with unexamined beliefs is that there is no challenge that can threaten them. We assume that we are right, and we manage to justify everything that happens through a belief that may or may not reflect reality. The Israelites had a belief in a god that was so powerful and vindictive that he sent plagues against anyone who did things he didn't like, but this god was also a mighty ally to those who were willing to obey. Therefore, every good thing that happened in the life of the Israelite community was considered to be something that God caused to happen, and everything bad that happened in the life of the Israelite community was viewed as evidence of their failure to be obedient. Later on in the Old Testament, this becomes a real concern when the Israelites are conquered and the temple is destroyed.
For now, the Israelites trust God and their enemies fall before them, "enemies" being the word used for people who had occupied the land for generations, but whom God didn't like. It's easy to write that history. "God leads his people to victory against all who oppose them" makes a great headline. Except that there are still complaints being made to Moses about the quality of the food and the lack of water. So, there is a plague of venomous snakes that starts killing off the Israelites. It's easy to write that headline, too. "Complain and die." But God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that anyone who gets bitten can look at this snake idol and be spared. Bizarre. The writer of Hebrews uses this scene as a clever allegorical connection to the cross, but the whole scene is a bit strange. Golden calves are bad, but bronze healing serpents are fine.
Cause and effect are not always what we imagine them to be. Do we believe that poison can be alleviated by looking at a particular object? Some would say, "Well, if God wanted it to work, then it would work." It's primitive witchcraft, but it is justified because the belief in the community is strong enough to overlook the disconnect. Flipping the calendar forward to the 21st century, we aren't just looking back at a relatively unsophisticated people and their primitive beliefs. We are in a world of colliding beliefs that are unexamined and basically unchallengeable. There is an incredible number of people of varying faiths who believe that their god sanctions violence against other people. We are essentially living in a technologically advanced era with a primitive worldview when we accept violence against the people our god doesn't like. And let's face it, we assume that our god doesn't like the people we don't like.
If we assume that a supreme being is in control of all that happens, we remove personal responsibility from the picture. Except that we still want to convince other people to behave the way we think God wants them to behave. If God is in control of everything, isn't he completely in control of everything we might want to complain about? And if we're complaining about how God is handling things, aren't we at all afraid that he will send venomous serpents after us? If God is in complete control, then God is in control of abortion, homosexuality, suicide bombers, who gets killed in the wars that God has obviously sanctioned, unemployment, the distribution or concentration of wealth, ... everything. There is nothing to complain about.
When we start to look for other causes for the effects that we see around us, however, the simplistic answer of "God said so" becomes replaced by a complex set of circumstances that aren't always easy to address. Rather than tell people God disapproves of their behavior and expect that to change the course of their lives, when we set aside the simplistic belief that God is the cause for every effect, we may find that there are actual human beings with needs and beliefs of their own, and that we have some opportunity to have a significant impact. It's not easy to make a real difference in someone's life while you're looking down your nose and pointing a judgmental finger at them. There really are people who set aside simple answers that eradicate personal responsibility, and in seeking the actual causes for the things that disappoint them about the world, create something truly meaningful.
The good news is that we all have the power to examine our beliefs and decide if they make sense or not. We can keep convincing ourselves that there's a supernatural reason why looking at a bronze serpent can cure snakebites, or we can reevaluate what we believe based on the evidence around us. Even evidence is subject to our beliefs, though. As a friend of mine often says, "Statistics don't lie... but you can lie with statistics." What we actually know may be completely different from what we choose to assume. We all have beliefs, and many of those beliefs are nothing more than assumptions we've chosen. Recognizing that we have a choice in what assumptions we're alright with is where wisdom comes into the picture.
What do you believe? Not just in the big picture, "what's the meaning of it all?" kind of beliefs. What do you believe about yourself? About the people around you? Are some of your beliefs in conflict with other beliefs? Are you happy with the assumptions you're making? You have choices.