Our story begins around the time that all that good stuff in the Book of Judges is happening. Mostly, judging and things like that.
We meet a nice Jewish family who live in Bethlehem in Judah: a guy named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. They're the perfect little pre-nuclear nuclear family.
But all is not picket fences for Elimelech and company. A famine hits Bethlehem and the family is forced to hightail it out of there.
They wander over to Moab where they have a bite to eat, settle in, and get acquainted with the locals.
Yep, they sure do get cozy. The two sons marry two nice Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. Talk about "getting acquainted."
Later, Elimelech dies and Naomi is left with only her two sons. Oh, that's sad.
Then, after the family has been there about ten years in total, both Naomi's sons die, too. Okay, we're gonna need some tissues, thanks.
The huge bummer of all this is that neither Mahlon or Chilion had any kids with their wives, so Naomi can't even fill her days with the spoiling of grandkids. She's pretty much miserable.
Stuck on Each Other
Since the famine in Bethlehem also happens to be over around this time, Naomi decides to make her way back to Judah. Her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, pack up their suitcases to join her, too.
But, Naomi begs the women not to follow her. She can't provide for them (no men around means no way to earn money).
She tells them to head back to their mothers' houses. There they'll be able to find some nice husbands to support and look after them. Maybe they'll even go on to star in their own reality show, The Real Housewives of Moab.
By now, everyone is crying.
Naomi kisses the girls and wishes them well, but they refuse to turn back. They beg to go with her to Judah.
But Naomi won't give in even though it's clear she loves both women (she calls them her "daughters").
So Naomi lays it all on the line. There's no use in going with her. It's not like she can provide Orpah and Ruth with more husbands.
She's too old to get another hubby and too old to have more sons. Even if she did, would they want to wait until those babies were old enough to marry? What will they have if they keep following her? Nothing—that's what.
Orpah is pretty sad, but she's finally convinced. She takes her mother-in-law's advice and turns back to mentally start making second wedding plans. Peace out, Orpah.
Ruth isn't giving up though.
She pledges to follow Naomi wherever she goes. In a lovely bit of poetry Ruth tells her "your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried." Wow, Naomi must have been some mother-in-law.
Now that Ruth has agreed to throw off her religion and cultural identity and become a Jew living in Judah, Naomi lets her tag along.
It's no use arguing with someone that stubborn.
Bethlehem, Sweet Bethlehem
Back in Judah, Naomi's arrival after ten years being gone is big news. The gossip mill starts churning instantly—Naomi's back in town!
But, Naomi warns them not to call her by that name anymore. She tells them to address her as Mara (which means "bitter") because God has really dealt her a crappy hand in life. We hear you, sister.
The famine is clearly last decade's news, because the barley harvest is about to begin in Bethlehem. Foreshadowing, anyone?