Mendenhall graduated from Midland College in Nebraska in 1936, and from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1938. Mendenhall was first an ordained Lutheran minister, and during World War II he served as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy. After the war, Mendenhall obtained a Ph.D. in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University and began a long career in Near Eastern and biblical studies as well as related archeology, including a professorship at the University of Michigan from 1952 to 1986. The Tenth Generation was popular with some New Left scholars in the mid seventies because it held that the Ancient Israelite settlement of Israel was actually the result of a cultural egalitarian revolution within Canaanite society. The University of Michigan honored Mendenhall by creating the George E. Mendenhall Professor Emeritus of Ancient and Biblical Studies.