Judges 1:8 says, “The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire.” The surface implication is that the city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed and everyone inside of it killed.
Just a few verses later, Judges 1:21 says, “The Benjamites, however, failed to dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.” This verse clearly states that the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, were not removed and still live there! How can both of these verses be true?
Daniel Block, in Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary) offers one explanation:
The most likely explanation recognizes that Jerusalem was a border city, located on the boundary between Judah and Benjamin. The city that was burned in v. 8 probably identifies the Jebusite fortress on the southern hill of the city, between the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys, and which David eventually captured and made his capital. Accordingly, the unsuccessful Benjamite effort in v. 21 must have been directed against the citadel farther north. The fact that David had to reconquer Jerusalem suggests the Judahite hold on the city was weak and short-lived. It seems that shortly after they had sacked it the Jebusites moved in from the north and took control, which they then held for several centuries.
Block’s explanation assumes that Jerusalem actually consisted of at least two separate citadels. But if there really was only one citadel named Jerusalem at that time, then how would we explain the apparent difficulty?
Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan argue in their book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God that we have to be careful when interpreting phrases like “put the city to the sword.” This phrase may have been hyperbolic in its original context. In other words, the author and the original readers would have understood that the entire city was not destroyed and that all the people inside were not literally killed. Instead there was a military victory that left at least some of the city intact and some of the residents alive.
We use hyperbolic language all the time today. Think about sports. Sports fans frequently say things like, “My team destroyed yours” or “We annihilated them last night.” Are we really talking about destruction and annihilation? No, obviously not. We simply mean that one team defeated the other. We use the exact same kinds of phrases when we talk about military battles.
Other hyperbolic phrases found in the Old Testament are “utterly destroy,” “put to the edge of the sword,” “leave alive nothing that breathes,” “leaving no survivors,” and “man and woman, young and old.” These kinds of phrases were commonly used among the people living at this time in history. Many times in the historical books of the Bible we see reports of “complete annihilation” of a city or group of people, only to see this same city or people group alive and well later on, often in the same book (compare Joshua 10:39 to 11:31 and Joshua 11:21 to 15:13-14).
So, a second plausible explanation for the seeming contradiction of verses 8 and 21 is that verse 8 should be understood hyperbolically. Whether you are convinced by this explanation or by Daniel Block’s explanation, there is not actually a contradiction.