The time was during the Judges, ~1400-1000 B.C. The place was in Moab, a land across the Arnon Valley from Israel (Num. 21:13; Deut. 3:16).
During the time of the judges, one of the ways that God disciplined Israel for her sin was by bringing famine into the land, usually through drought but also by pests such as locusts (Hab. 3:17-18). Because of such a famine, Elimelech, a man from Bethlehem, took his wife Naomi and his two sons to the neighboring country of Moab. During the ten years the family lived in the land of Moab, Elimelech died leaving Naomi a widow. However, her two sons grew up and married Moabite women. Then her sons died and Naomi was left with only her foreign daughters-in-law. We have no idea how old Naomi was when she married or how long she and Elimelech lived in Bethlehem before the famine that took them to Moab; however, we know they already had two sons and that she could have been nearing middle age by the time they left Bethlehem. By now she could be around 60 while Ruth and Orpah were likely still in their 20’s, but age difference does not matter to two of the same faith.
Through their actions, attitudes and their words to each other, the book of Ruth 1:1-22 gives detailed insight into the character and situation of each of the women mentioned there. Much may be learned from that chapter. Judges 21:25 is considered to be the key verse of the book of Judges—describing the time period of both books. Think of Naomi’s poverty in a strange, pagan land—poverty without a husband or any sons to care for her. Think of her trip on foot back to Bethlehem from Moab and her entrance to her homeland after being gone for 10 years. Think of her lack of ability to support herself. Using the scriptures from Ruth, chapter 1, you might list all the circumstances that could have terrified Naomi; however, notice how she responded to God by faith?
Imagine for a minute that you lived in a place or during a time when there was no established law for everyone to follow—no governmental authority that anyone would acknowledge. Then research Moab and the Moabite religion to get a better feel for how Ruth and Orpah were reared, what Naomi experienced, living in that strange land hostile to the true God of Heaven, raising her own children and watching them marry Moabite women. The Law of Moses required Israelites to marry Israelites (mostly within their own tribes) because foreign nations would turn their hearts away from God (Exod. 34:14-16; Deut. 7:3-4; 1 Chro. 23:22; Ezra 9:1-2; Ezra 9:12; Neh. 10:30; Neh. 13:26-27; Mal. 2:11). As close to God as Naomi was, she must have known this and been grieved for the marriages of her sons.
Though Naomi and Ruth were not actually biological mother and daughter, not even the same nationality, they had a beautiful spiritual relationship. Theirs is one of the most beautiful accounts in Scripture. We see true parental affection exemplified by Naomi (Ruth 1:8-9). This godly mother-in-law wielded such a strong influence for good that it extended to Ruth and changed her life forever. Because of Naomi’s sweet influence and devotion to God, Ruth was blessed to leave the gods of the Moabites and follow the true God of Heaven. After studying this pair, we may be comforted that there are still good young women “out there somewhere” trying to serve in a humble and modest way even if they did not grow up knowing the God of Heaven.
In the Hebrew language, the name Naomi meant “pleasant, agreeableness, i.e. delight, suitableness, splendor or grace,” but after the death of her husband and two sons, she called herself Mara, or “bitter” (Ruth 1:20-21). In Ruth 1:13, we read what Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law “…nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me.” Later, when she and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, Naomi said to the women of Bethlehem, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me” referring to the death of her husband (Elimelech) and her two sons (Mahlon and Chilion).
Naomi was indeed bitter. Added to the bitterness she felt for Ruth and Orpah, Naomi had to deal with the bitterness she felt in her own bereavement, dislocation and poverty. Naomi was a widow (Ruth 1:3). To lose who she used to be through age or malady was to experience a small death, but to lose her husband and sons as well was far more. There was grieving. There was anger and bitterness. When tragedy struck, Naomi had two choices—to deny her situation or to accept it and move forward. Only a few can rise and go forward with nobility the way Naomi eventually did. In Naomi’s initial bitter reaction, we understand she took the first option—a natural choice. Gradually Naomi moved on to survive.
Fortunately, the faithful, noble Ruth was able to help in Naomi’s rehabilitation to finally bring her joy. Ruth and Naomi were good for one other and no doubt the Lord gave them to each other for that purpose.
Naomi was thankful to Boaz (Ruth 2:19-20) for his kindness to her through Ruth. [NOTE: Boaz’s mother was Rahab—an outsider who also experienced the kindness of the Lord and His people.] Under Naomi’s instructions, Ruth was able to claim from Boaz the duty of a kinsman (Ruth 3:1-9). After Ruth’s marriage to Boaz and the birth of Obed, the women of the town said, “Naomi has a son” (Ruth 4:17). No doubt there was rejoicing all around—a happy day, a new beginning, in an otherwise tragic life.