“there was a famine in the land.” This famine happened in the period of the Book of Judges, and likely during one of the periods when Israel had abandoned Yahweh and was worshiping pagan gods because famine was one of the signs of the judgment of God (Lev. 26:19-26; Deut. 28:23-24, 38-42). When people abandon God they open themselves up to the cruel attacks of the Devil. Elimelech, like Abraham, left the land when there was a famine (see commentary on Genesis 12:10). It is very unusual that there would be a famine in Israel, especially around Bethlehem, and not in Moab, the border of which was only about 25 miles from Bethlehem. One of the many lessons in Ruth is that often righteous people suffer because of the sins of the people around them. Elimelech and Naomi were righteous people, but they suffered when God’s judgment fell on Israel. The fact that the righteous suffer along with the wicked when people abandon and defy God is a major reason godly people should be invested in making sure a nation has godly rulers and godly laws. A nation that defies God will suffer many hardships.
“Bethlehem Judah.” Since “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” there are a couple of Bethlehems in Israel, this Bethlehem is Bethlehem in Judah.
“went to live in the country of Moab.” The Hebrew text reads literally, “in the fields of Moab,” but Moab was referred to by the idiom, “the fields of Moab.” The central area of Moab was a high plateau that had fields. The NAB reads, “the plateau of Moab,” which is geographically correct. The Bible never gives the reason that Elimelech left Israel. Obviously many other people did not leave but endured the famine. It is possible that Elimelech was so discouraged by the idolatry of the people of Israel during the Judges period that he thought God’s judgment would be on Israel for years to come, and upon hearing that Moab was not experiencing the famine simply decided to go there.