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Naomi is married to Elimelech. A famine causes them to move with their two sons, from their home in Judea to Moab. While there Elimelech dies, as well as his sons who had gotten married in the meantime. Near destitute, Naomi returns to Bethlehem with one daughter-in-law, Ruth, whom she could not dissuade from accompanying her. Her other daughter-in-law, Orpah, remains in Moab.
Naomi is so changed by poverty and affliction that her old friends hardly recognize her. She tells them, "Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (מרה), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me". Barry Webb points out that there is both an objective element in her life being bitter through bereavement, dislocation and poverty, as well as a subjective element - the bitterness she feels. He further argues that in Chapter 1 of the Book of Ruth, Naomi's "perception of her condition" is "distorted by self-absorption," but that Ruth plays "a key role in her rehabilitation." Abraham Kuyper, on the other hand, asserts that "Naomi has such innate nobility of character that she immediately elicits from us our most sincere sympathy." The Book of Ruth depicts the struggles of Naomi and Ruth for survival in a patriarchal environment. 
The arrival of Naomi and Ruth in Bethlehem coincides with the barley harvest. Naomi gives Ruth permission to glean those fields where she is allowed. She is working in the field of Boaz, when a servant identifies her to him as the daughter-in-law of Naomi. It happens that Boaz is a kinsman of Naomi's late husband. He tells her to work with female servants, warns the young men not to bother her, and at mealtime invites her to share his food.
When Naomi learns that Ruth has the attention and kindness of Boaz, she counsels Ruth to approach him directly. "... [P]ut on your best attire and go down to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man before he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, take note of the place where he does so. Then go, uncover a place at his feet, and lie down. He will tell you what to do." (Ruth 3: 3-4)
Webb points out Naomi's "feminine scheming" in forcing Boaz's hand. Yitzhak Berger suggests that Naomi's plan was that Ruth seduce Boaz, just as Tamar and the daughters of Lot all seduced "an older family member in order to become the mother of his offspring." At the crucial moment, however, "Ruth abandons the attempt at seduction and instead requests a permanent, legal union with Boaz."
Ruth marries Boaz and they have a son, whom Naomi cares for, and so the women of the town say "Naomi has a son" (Ruth 4:17). In this way, the book can be seen to be Naomi's story: Gregory Goswell argues that Naomi is the central character of the book, whereas Ruth is the main character. The son in question was Obed, who later became the grandfather of David.