If you search the Old Testament for models of discipleship, you will come up short; and the primary reason is that the role of “teacher” is notably absent in the Old Testament. Because we are so familiar with the Rabbi, “my teacher,” in the New Testament (or even its Aramaic equivalent, Rabboni), we assume these roles had a long heritage. In reality, the role arose in the inter-biblical period under Hellenistic influence.
Have you ever wondered why the Greek word “synagogue” rather than some Hebrew term is used for the primary local meeting place for Jews? It is because the whole concept of a place of gathering for worship and instruction arose in contexts where secular influences were strong and regular worship in the Temple was practically impossible. Even the word we use to describe the setting in which the synagogue arose, the Diaspora (the Greek word meaning “scattering”), shows Hellenistic influence. We probably should not be surprised, then, to discover that the role of teacher and the relational association of disciples with teachers also arose from the same non-Jewish origins.
Teaching in the Old Testament was a family affair set in the context of a supportive community of fellow practitioners of the faith. Prophets proclaimed the word of the Lord, but prophets didn’t set up schools or seminaries or even synagogues. “Sons of prophets” are referenced in the Old Testament, and they certainly were more than offspring of the prophets; but they do not appear to be students of the prophets. First Samuel uses terms like “band” (10:5) or “company” (19:20) to further describe the prophets, and 2 Kings depicts them more like a guild of professional prophets associated with places of worship (e.g. Bethel) or larger cities (e.g. Jericho) than a school led by a single prophet.
The close relationship of Elisha to Elijah may come closest to the idea of a disciple, but Elijah anointed Elisha as his successor and then discouraged Elisha from “following” him (1 Kings 19:19-20). Elisah “followed” Elijah, but he seems to have been more of a “servant” to the aged Elijah than an intentional disciple (19:21). Indeed, the very next scriptural references to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12) are in the context of Elijah’s ascent into heaven.
The Hebrew rabbi is not found in the Old Testament. Its roots are found in a verb that means “to become many or much.” The noun rab is used of a chief (chief guard or officer in Jeremiah, chief sailor in Jonah, chief eunuch, chief soothsayer, etc.). After the Old Testament period we find it used of lords and masters, and rabbi meaning “my master” or “my teacher” emerges as an extension of this post-Old Testament usage.
Obviously, we will have to look elsewhere for the origins of discipleship; and the hint of Greek influence already is pointing us in one direction while famous Rabbis (like Shammai and Hillel who founded “houses” or “schools” in the last two centuries B.C.E.) provide a further path of exploration.