Naomi and her family lived in Bethlehem during a famine, but rather than riding out the famine they decided to leave. Famines were generally understood to be of the hand of God, usually brought about by sin and corruption seeping into the hearts of the people. In this aspect it could be argued that famines were most often a direct result of the people walking in disobedience outside of the will of God. And as we all know, being outside of the will of God has consequences.
Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. (Deuteronomy 28:38-39)
If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD; Then the LORD will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance.
So, the famine was a result of sin, of disobedience, of an unwillingness to humble themselves before the Lord. Rather than seeing God's great patience and mercy in this they see it as trouble and run away. God sent this as a wake up call. Can you not hear His heart pleading, "My beloved children, turn back to Me! Do you not see what your disobedience brings? Your land and lives are in great peril. Turn back and walk in My loving protection!" But Naomi and her family refuse and turn their backs on the God who loves them all in order to join hands with an unbelieving world and try to prosper in their own strength. This, of course, is directly against what God commands of them in Deuteronomy 26:3, "Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days forever." This further disobedience leads to further destruction - Naomi's husband dies. In this God is being merciful, Naomi and her two sons are still alive, they easily could have returned to Israel but refused to do so.
Instead her son's go against God's commandment and marry foreign women. The sons die, now only the women are left. One family's disobedience has not only brought devastating results in their lives, but has directly affected the lives of two other women. After all this Naomi gets wind that the famine has passed in Bethlehem and decides to return. Now, at first glance one breathes a sigh of relief because she's returning. Perhaps all this trouble has caused her to understand how she needs God and she's willing to trust Him now. Sadly, I'm not sure this was the case. Notice she only returns after the famine passes. They left because life got rough and now she returns because life got even more rough. And so she prepares to head home. She bids her daughters in law farewell, and after some convincing one daughter decides to return to her family, to her friends, to her old life, to the gods of her youth. But in Ruth we something truly remarkable. We see a heart called by God. In the midst of what must have been a sad and frightening time we see a woman who has gotten a glimpse of God's glory and has been changed by it.
We see a woman who is unable to turn her back and forget what she has seen. We see a woman who, upon hearing the call on her life, turns away from everything she has ever known in order to follow the God of her mother in law. She leaves behind her friends, her family, the idols of her home land, even any opportunity she would have had to get remarried and be cared for. She trusts God, and despite the difficulties that laid before her she sets off with Naomi.
In Naomi's family we see people who were brought up knowing God, yet their hearts refuse Him and they turn away to serve their desires. We see a family who knew God on some level but chose to ignore Him. They went out to find food and prosperity and found only destruction.
Upon her return to Bethlehem Naomi declares that she should be called Mara (bitter). She says that she went out full and returned empty. Still she seems unwilling to accept the sins she and her family committed and refuses to look at God's grace in all of it. She didn't come back empty - she came back! She was alive and able to return! God had sparred her life, yet she sees only the death. And as if her life weren't enough He blessed her with a loyal daughter in law who sought to care for her. But still she cries out "I have nothing!"
This is quite the contrast to Ruth. She has lost just as much as Naomi and yet we never hear these complaints from her. Perhaps she, like Paul, counted the costs and realized everything she lost was nothing if she'd gained God. She is willing to step out in faith and do the work He provides her. Sunrise to sunset she is in the fields collecting food to feed her and Naomi.
You see, God has seen all of this. He has seen the devastation and hardship, He has seen Ruth's faithfulness. People who had heard about Him and sat under His teaching all their lives didn't seem to get it, but Ruth did. She'd only just heard about Him, just come to Him, and yet she shows more character, more faith than those around her. With a child-like faith she sets out. God put a specific field in front of her, ironically enough it is the field of the husband He has determined to give her, and told her to work it. He says, "Here is your work, I've determined this is what is best for you. Do the work and trust that it will be enough." God knows all she needs, He knows she essentially has no family, but by seeking God she has been brought into His family and eventually He blesses her with a godly husband with a heart for serving the Lord. He knows she needs food and a roof over her head, and He provides the means to receive those. But beyond that He gives her time. Time to unlearn her old way of life, time to learn about Him. Time to learn to trust Him first and foremost.
You see, if He had given her Boaz right after coming to Bethlehem she would have been more likely to focus on him. She would see him as the one who protects and provides for her, and yes this is true he would be, but God protects and provides for him, so really anything Boaz is able to give her would have been by the hand of God. And she needed time to learn that. In all of this we see that God gave her the highest treasure, Himself. The gods of her youth had no power, now she had an all powerful God caring for her. She was hell bound and He called her to the salvation which can only be found in Him. God in His great mercy rescued her from a life that would have ended in the destruction of her life, He called her out of the world that didn't care for her and could provide nothing of lasting value for her. He saved her from her sins. The ones He had originally reached out to turned their backs on Him, yet He used this sin to bring in a Gentile woman and join her with the faithful in worship of Him.
We cannot read the book of Ruth without seeing God's passion for calling the lost, without seeing what He desires for the believer - to draw them to Himself in faithful submission to His will. He longs to provide and protect, to make us part of the family with Him as the head. He longs to redeem us from our sin. He longs for us to wake up and see His glory and that there is nothing this world could ever offer that compares to that.
Naomi had it backwards, she didn't leave full and come back empty. She left with nothing because she was leaving God, and came back with everything to gain. And that everything, the beginning and the end was God.