The author lists the cast of characters and places them in their historical and geographical context. Unlike other historical books in the OT, the main characters here are not important judges, kings, or prophets. Elimelech and his family are pictured as average Israelites, negotiating their way through the everyday affairs of life. They have authentic Northwest Semitic names with appropriate meanings (given the events of the book), though they are not necessarily symbolic names (Campbell, 52-54, 59). Elimelech's name (“My God is King”) is perfectly suited to a story about God's sovereignty. The significance of Naomi's name is unclear, but it may be an abbreviated name meaning “[God is my] delight,” or “Pleasant[ness].” Likewise, precise meanings for the names of the two sons and Orpah are lost to us. There has been much speculation about Ruth's name which is assumed to mean “woman companion/friend,” or “satiation.” (See commentaries for more on the names.)
During the premonarchic period, this family had been forced by famine to leave their home temporarily in order to make a living elsewhere (as others had done from time to time, Ge 12:10, 2Ki 8:1). This relocation continued for a full decade, during which the father died and the two sons married local Moabite women. Through a series of unexplained tragedies, the two sons also died. Thus this brief introduction graphically explains the problem (see “Content and Structure” above), which will gradually be addressed in the book. In rapid and succinct narration, the author describes how these three women came to be alone and helpless. Bereaved of husband and children and past her childbearing years (1:11), Naomi found herself in the most extreme and desperate circumstances possible for an Israelite woman. Having just met Naomi, the reader is already sympathetic to her plight and anxious to see it resolved.