Having looked at the Latin origins of the English word disciple, we would do well also to examine the Old Testament roots of the concept. Do we have any examples of discipleship in the Old Testament? We do, but they are rather sparse and provide only a little insight into what being a disciple means. I have searched pretty thoroughly and can only find four Old Testament passages that would seem to have any relevance for our attempt to define “disciple.”
Three of these passages are found in the Book of Isaiah, and two of the passages use one Hebrew adjective in an absolute construction (that means the adjective is used alone without reference to an associated noun and thus takes on some of the force of a noun). The Hebrew adjective is limmud, which is derived from the Hebrew verb lamad, which means to learn, to be trained, or to teach. The adjective is used in the plural form twice in Isaiah 50:4. At the beginning of the verse, translators are all over the board in their rendering the concept in English. Most have added “me” after “the Lord God has given” to apply the verse either to Isaiah or to the Messiah. What the Lord has given is interpreted as “the tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), “an instructed tongue” (NIV), “the tongue of disciples” (NASB), or “the tongue of the learned” (KJV). “My” is added again at the end of the verse; and limmud is rendered “those who are taught,” (NRSV), “one being taught” (NIV), “a disciple” (NASB), or “the learned” (KJV). My attempt to translate the verse literally, using “instructed” for limmud, is, “The Lord God has given an awakening word to a tongue instructed to know, to sustain a weary one. In the morning, in the morning, he awakened the ear to hear as the instructed.” I would have omitted this verse altogether except for the fact that the NASB used the words “disciples” and “disciple” to translate limmud in this verse. Since the word is a plural adjective in an absolute construction, none of the attempts at translation are very good renderings, including my own. At the most, this verse says that both those who speak and those who listen need an attitude of disciplined attention to God’s voice.
Isaiah 8:16 also employs the word limmud, but in this case the possessive pronoun “my” is attached to the absolute adjective construction. All four translations we looked at previously use “my disciples” in this context. Here the disciples (those who are learned, instructed, or trained) appear to be disciples of the prophet Isaiah, and their charge (indicated by Hebrew imperatives) is twofold: “bind up the testimony” (that is, preserve the prophetic teaching) and “seal the teaching” (literally “seal the Torah,” that is, affix an attesting seal upon the divine instruction given to the people of God). This is an initial idea that finds full expression later among the rabbis, where the disciple’s primary role is to preserve and pass on the teachings of the rabbi.
The foundational elements found in limmud, therefore, emphasize disciplined attention to the voice of the teacher and a charge to preserve diligently the teacher’s instruction. We hear echoes of these ideas in John 10, where Jesus is “the good shepherd” whose sheep know him, listen to his voice (cf. “wakens my ear to listen like one being taught,” Isaiah 50:4), and follow him.