George E. Mendenhall – 1916-2016

Below is the obituary of George E. Mendenhall which was published in Ann Arbor News on August 7, 2016. Professor Mendenhall was professor of Near Eastern language and literature at the University of Michigan.

Mendenhall, George 8/13/1916 – 8/5/2016 Ann Arbor George Emery Mendenhall, age 99, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, died Friday, August 5, 2016 at home George Emery Mendenhall was born August 13, 1916, the third of six children to George Newton George E Mendenhalland Mary Johnson Mendenhall in Muscatine, Iowa.

He graduated from Fremont High School in Fremont Nebraska at the age of 15 in 1932 and received his BA from Midland College in 1936. He then attended Western Theological Seminary, also in Fremont, followed by studies at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary where he received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1938. He began studies for his PhD at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore that year, but interrupted his academic career to study Japanese in Boulder, Colorado, and later serve as a Naval Intelligence analyst in the Pacific during World War II.

He married Eathel Tidrick in 1943, having met her at Yellowstone Park when he worked summers there at a photo-finishing plant, while she was working at Canyon Lodge. He was shipped to the South Pacific in 1944 and was part of the post-war occupation force in Japan. In December 1945 he returned to the US to be reunited with his wife and son David, who was born in February of that year.

George received his PhD from John Hopkins under the renowned biblical scholar William F. Albright in 1947, and then began teaching at Hamma Divinity School in Springfield Ohio. In 1952, the family moved to Ypsilanti, after George was invited to teach at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.

In the 1955-1956 academic year, George was offered a research fellowship at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, Jordan. He and his wife and four sons, ages 3-10, took a ship to Le Havre France from Montreal in the summer of 1955, and then drove in their 1955 Nash Rambler all the way to Jerusalem, a 2500-mile trek through most of Europe, Turkey, and Syria.

Back in Ann Arbor, George’s career blossomed, first with the 1954 publication of “Law and Covenant.” He argued that the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus had the same form and structure as the contemporary international Hittite treaties, persuading the intensely partisan Biblical scholars to look at alternative sources to explain the Biblical narratives. Just as those treaties constituted the rule of Hittite kings, so did the covenant a Mount Sinai constitute the Hebrew God as Israel’s “king.”

In 1962, he published the “Hebrew Conquest of Palestine” arguing that the genocide depicted in the book of Joshua was largely a later fiction created for purposes of political propaganda. Instead he argued that the appearance of Israel in Palestine at the time of Joshua was largely a matter of the indigenous villages and tribes of Palestine “becoming Israelite” when they rejected their old gods and pledged themselves to the Hebrew God and covenant ethic described by the Ten Commandments.

In 1973, George published The Tenth Generation, a collection of essays on the origins of the biblical tradition. That same year, the University of Michigan conferred the Henry Russel lectureship on him, the highest accolade that the University can confer on a faculty member. George returned to Jerusalem as director of the American School of Oriental Research in 1965, and then director of the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan in 1975.

He also lectured and taught at Leeds (England), Rome, Durban (South Africa), Saudia Arabia, Yemen, and St. Catherine’s monastery in the Egyptian Sinai, among other locations. After his mandatory retirement from the University of Michigan in 1986, he took up teaching in Irbid, Jordan, at Yarmouk University continuing his interest training students in the history of Arabic and Semitic languages.

George and his wife of 71 years, Eathel, would make numerous trips to the Middle East and around the world, both for professional and personal reasons in his post retirement years. Eathel, an avid painter and gardener, preceded him in death in November of 2015.

He is survived by sister Helen Mendenhall of Sugarland Texas, sons David (Ying Dong) of Pamona, New York, Lauri, Stanley (Robin Wilt), Gordon (Nihal Riad), and Stephen, all of the Ann Arbor area, grandchildren Catherine Brownstein (John) of Boston, and George Stuart Mendenhall of Pittsburgh, and great-grandchildren Jackson and Caroline.

Professor Mendenhall was a very influential scholar who made many important contributions to biblical studies. His scholarship will be greatly missed.

Rest In Peace.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


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2 Responses to George E. Mendenhall – 1916-2016

  1. Dieter says:

    After reading some portions of Dr. Mendenhall’s works online, I wonder whether he believed in the actual personhood of God and the deity of Jesus the Messiah. If not, Dr. Mendenhall’s death is truly tragic.


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