Time rolls on, and Bethlehem's sons and daughters are born and buried for one hundred and seventy years, unnoted in sacred history. But at the expiration of that period the record again begins; and we see Elimelech, with his wife and two sons, gathering up their substance and preparing to remove.
There was a famine in the land; provisions were getting dear; and this family arrived at the determination to forego the privileges of home and the ordinances of God, and to dwell for a time among the idolatrous Moabites.
This nation descended from Moab, the son of Lot, and inhabited the country lying east of the Dead sea. Here is where Zoar lies, the city to which Lot and his daughters fled when Sodom was burned; previous to which event this region was inhabited by a race of giants great and tall. The Moabites called them Emim. These they conquered, and the country afterwards attained a state of great luxuriance and beauty; but the inhabitants worshipped the idols Chemosh and Baal-peor, and God sent many and remarkable threats to them by his prophets, which were afterwards literally fulfilled. At this day the country contains many splendid ruins of temples, hanging gardens, and sepulchral monuments; and the wandering Arabs pitch their tents here and there in the region which was once studded with cities.
To this land Elimelech and his family bent their steps. After several days of weary toil and travel, they reached their place of destination, and made for themselves a home.
Here undoubtedly Elimelech had an abundance of food; but while God granted him his desires, he visited him and his family with righteous judgment. Elimelech was laid upon a bed of death, and his grave was made among idolaters.
Naomi, with her two sons, was left in great affliction, a widow among strangers, with no dear friend of her kindred to advise or assist her; and she undoubtedly looked back with regret to her early home and friends, and would gladly have returned and suffered with them in the famine.
But God had designs which were not yet accomplished. There was a Moabitish woman in the land from whom the Saviour was to descend, and she was to have her home in Judah. These secret purposes of God were unknown to Naomi and her son Mahlon; but as he associated with the inhabitants of the land, he became interested in a daughter of Moab named Ruth, and in process of time she became his wife. Chilion the younger son also married Orpah, and the widowed heart of Naomi began to rejoice. But her cup of bitterness was not yet full. Soon Mahlon and Chilion died, and these three widows mingled their scalding tears around the same hearthstone. Well might Naomi exclaim, "Were there no graves in Bethlehem, that I have come into Moab to bury my dead?"
Ten years before, she came from home a beloved wife and a happy mother, and possessed of the comforts of life; but now, bereft of all, she arises with her daughters-in-law to return, for she had heard that the famine was past.
Being destitute of property, they probably left on foot the place where they had been living, and for some time the three travelled on together. But Naomi, whose mind dwelt upon her destitute and helpless condition, turned to her daughters-in-law, and advised them to return each to her mother's home, for she herself could offer no inducements for them to follow her; and she also expressed the wish that the Lord would deal as kindly with them as they had dealt with the dead and with her. She then kissed them a farewell. But they lifted up their voices and wept; and amid their tears they said, Naomi, we surely will go with you.
Naomi assured them that she was exceedingly sorry for their sakes, but that the hand of the lord had gone out against her; she was now poor, and although about to return to her native city, she had no home to go to, and could offer them no inducements to follow her. And now, my daughters, she said, go back, and find husbands in your own country, and be prosperous and happy, and I will go on alone to die and be buried with my people. and they lifted up their voices and wept again.
Orpah accepted the advice, and after kissing her mother-in-law again, she turned back; but Ruth said, "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge: they people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried."
Naomi saw that the lovely Ruth was willing to share with her the hard lot which God had appointed her; and rejoicing in heart that she was still to have her company and help day after day, they two went on their weary journey, till again Bethlehem in the distance, with its familiar and homelike look, bursts upon Naomi's weeping eyes. Who can tell the gush of mingled joy and grief that overwhelmed her at this moment?
Ten years ago she stood on that spot crowned with every blessing. Elimelech was by her side to anticipate and supply all her wants, and her two sons were ready to do her bidding. Where are they now? She stands riveted to the spot by painful remembrances. She is old and poor and sad, with none to comfort her, save Ruth with the loving, kindly feelings of a hopeful heart beaming from her face. Naomi points out the familiar places of her youth, as they go down into the valley and up to the gates of the city.
One and another and another repeats the news that "Naomi has come back," till all the city is moved, and they exclaim, "Is this Naomi?" And she replied in anguish of spirit, "Call me not Naomi," which means pleasant, "but call me Mara," bitter, "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?"