Although it is not known who wrote the book, it was probably written during the reign of Israel's King David. The book centers around the theme of redemption and provides a beautiful picture of the coming Messiah (Jesus Christ). The events described in the book occur during the time of the judges. This was the time between when the Israelites left Egypt and when they asked God for a king like the nations around them (1 Samuel 8).
"In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there." NIV translation
This passage is a key to understanding the entire book of Ruth. These two verses tell us the time period for the events ("when the judges ruled") and also the fact that these people were Israelites (Jews). Moab was a land that was named after the son that Lot (Abraham's nephew) had with his oldest daughter (Gen. 19:30-38). Therefore, the Moabites were close to the lineage of Abraham but were not direct descendants and thus would be classified as Gentiles. We are told that, during this time, there was a famine in Israel but it must have not happened in Moab or at least it was less severe there. This Jewish man then takes his family to live among the Gentiles leaving the land of his people and his God behind. He could have stayed and trusted in God to sustain him and his family but instead he chose to go to a spiritually dead place and try to provide for his own needs.
"Now Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband." NIV translation
From this passage, we see that Elimelech, who had went to Moab to live because of famine, stayed and in fact died there. Then, the sons married Moabite (Gentile) women going against God's instructions in Deuteronomy 7. The sons also died in Moab and Naomi was left with her sons wives as her only relatives there. We can see from this passage how a little step away from God and living a holy life can lead to further disobedience. Because of Elimelech's decision to go to live among the Moabites for food, his sons grew up and married Moabite women. We probably can all look back on some of our decisions and see how a seemingly small and right step has in fact led us into disobedience of God. The key is to constantly be in prayer, seeking God's will, and listening for His gentle correction. If His gentle warnings are not heeded, we can find ourselves further away from God and deeper in disobedience just as happened to the men in this passage.
"When she heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah." NIV translation
Naomi heard that God was taking care of his people in the land that he had given them so she set off to return to home. There is great promise and reassurance in these verses as we are reminded that God does take care of the needs of his people. Each of us today must stop and remember that all we have comes from God and he has promised to take care of those who trust in Jesus Christ just as he promised the people of Israel.
"Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, 'Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.' Then she kissed them and they wept aloud and said to her, 'We will go back with you to your people.'" NIV translation
Here we see a beautiful picture of loyalty as Naomi tells the women to go back to their mother's homes but they want to go with Naomi. We should remember that these women were saying that they would go with her to a foreign land where they would not be looked upon as equal citizens. They were Gentiles as well as widows with no visible sign of support but they were going to stand by Naomi. It is also a good example for us and a chance for each of us to ask ourselves this question: When we accepted Jesus as our savior (married Him just as these women married Naomi's sons), did we make this same declaration of loyalty and are we willing to go in a direction that may not make sense to us? Your answer to that question can help you to assess the condition of your relationship with God.
"But Naomi said, 'Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me-even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons-would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord's hand has gone out against me!'" NIV translation
In this passage, Naomi tries to reason with the young ladies and tell them that it does not make sense to go with her. Now, they have a choice to make; will they go with what they know God is telling them or will they go with what makes sense to them? We, as Christians, many times have to ask ourselves this same question as to whether we obey the tug of God on our hearts or do what the world says makes sense. Faith is demonstrated in making the decision to follow God's direction in spite of what either our own minds or anyone else may say.
"At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodby, but Ruth clung to her" NIV translation
After listening to Naomi, Orpah decided that she was right and decided to go back to her people but Ruth decided to stay. As we shall see, Ruth will be blessed by her decision while nothing else is heard of Orpah. When we choose to follow our own understanding we may lose out on many of God's blessings.
"'Look,' said Naomi, 'your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.' But Ruth replied, 'Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.' When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her." NIV translation
In this passage, we see the depth of Ruth's commitment to Naomi. This settled the matter and Naomi gave up trying to talk her out of going with her. This is a good example of the Christian walk as well. When we come to Jesus Christ our commitment should be like that of Ruth and that is why this book is such a beautiful picture of salvation and the Christian walk. We should all regularly stop and evaluate the depth of our commitment. Do we let others discourage us from the walk or do we stand firm just as Ruth did?
"So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, 'Can this be Naomi?' 'Don't call me Naomi,' she told them. 'Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.'" NIV translation
Finally, it is settled and Ruth and Naomi make their way to Bethlehem. When they arrive there, the ladies of the town can hardly believe that it is Naomi. She had left with a full family of a husband and two young sons and returns with only a daughter-in-law. Naomi was quick to explain that the Lord had afflicted her. We may wonder why she would say that but it seems that she realized how they had left the land that God had given them and went to one that did not worship God. Today, we are quick to say that all of our sins were paid for by Jesus which is true but sin may still have lasting consequences.
"So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning." NIV translation
This verse gives us the time of Naomi and Ruth's arrival back into Bethlehem as we are told that it was as the barley harvest was beginning. This is important as barley was the first grain to ripen in the Spring. This was a feast time as the Feast of Passover was celebrated followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the offering of the firstfruits of the harvest. Barley was a sign of hope as the people had made it through another winter season and the ripening of the barley meant better nutrition. Barley was also the cheapest grain as most everyone could afford it. It is interesting to note here that Ruth was the great grandmother of King David and is listed in the lineage of Jesus Christ (Matthew chapter one). This same time many years later would find Jesus celebrating the passover in an upper room with his disciples. After the passover during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus was crucified removing the sins of the world and being lifted up as the Firstfruits of all men. God brought this Gentile woman with her Jewish mother-in-law to Bethlehem at this time knowing that through her descendants Jesus would be born to be the Hope of all men.