In the first verse of the book of Ruth it is recorded that “During the time of the judges there was a famine in the land of Judah. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah went to live as a resident foreigner in the region of Moab, along with his wife and two sons” (1:1). Famine is an underlying issue. Giving this some thought, one realizes that famine is an important theme of Scripture and the covenantal narrative, and it here presents itself on another occasion. Famines can be seen in connection with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, and with Joseph.
Thus the man being referenced here in Ruth, whose name was Elimelech, now stands in good company. In dealing with a famine, he is now walking the familiar path that has been previously trod by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elimelech, like these men, has voluntarily removed himself from the land of the Creator God’s promise. When considering one of the overarching themes of all of Scripture, it can be noted that he is now in something of a self-imposed exile. Along with that, it should be noted that the Scripture here offers no commentary on his departure from the promised land, but simply presents it as a matter of fact.
While in this state of exile from the land that represents the covenant God’s faithful promises to His people, Elimelech died. His death left his wife (Naomi) and two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) alone. Rather than return to the land of Judah, “her sons married Moabite women (Orpah and Ruth). And they continued to live there about ten years” (1:4). Here, as one listens to this story as a member of the nation of Israel, it is possible to hear echoes of Jacob’s first departure from his father’s house, which came on the heels of what he believed to be his father’s impending death (because of Isaac’s insistence on blessing Esau before he died), as when Jacob was in the first of his exiles in Haran, two women were married and there was an extended dwelling away from the land of promise. For Naomi, the pain of exile would grow, as her two sons went the way of their father, dying there in the land of Moab. With this, she is described as being “bereaved of her two children as well as her husband” (1:5b).
It was within this bereavement that Naomi “decided to return home from the region of Moab, accompanied by her daughters-in-law” (1:6a). She decided to make this return journey “because while she was living in Moab she had heard that the Lord had shown concern for His people, reversing the famine by providing abundant crops” (1:6b). This statement should serve as a reminder of the opening statement of the book and the famine mentioned therein “during the time of the judges.”
Why would there have been a famine in Judah? Well, if one believes in a covenant God that is faithful to His promises (according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy), and also believes in the repetitive record of the book of Judges, the famine is a curse related to Israel’s idolatry---doing evil in the sight of their Lord. Famine points to exile, while also informing an observer that Elimelech’s flight to Moab, occurring during the time period covered by the book of Judges, was most likely undertaken during one of the periods of Israel’s subjugation to a foreign power.