The opening of the book of Ruth jumps right in, introducing us to many of the important characters and giving us an historical backdrop for the story. A man named Elimelech ("My God is King"), from Bethlehem ("House of bread", a city that later became very famous) in the tribe of Judah decides that in the face of difficult times, he needs to leave Israel and move to nearby Moab, a land peopled by the ancestors of Lot. You may or may not remember the story of how these people came to be from Genesis 19; the name Moab means "seed of the father", and according to the story, the man Moab who was the patriarch of this nation was the child of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter. (This happened in the same chapter of Genesis with the story of the destruction of Sodom, so while we are leaving behind the horror of the final chapters of the book of Judges, there is still perhaps a hint here at the parallel story to Judges 19.)
Elimelech dies, and his two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then the sons die, and Naomi, alone in the world with her daughters-in-law, decides to go back to Israel, as she has heard things are looking up there. The two women try and come with her, but she urges them to go their separate ways. Orpah ("deer") kisses her mother goodbye and leaves, but Ruth ("friendship") refuses to leave her, giving one of the most beautiful speeches in the Bible to her. Naomi takes Ruth back to Bethlehem with her, where she is recognized. She insists that people no longer call her Naomi ("pleasant"), but rather Mara ("bitter"), "for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me."
So if this is an allegory (and let me say again that while I believe it to be an allegory, it's also a telling of a story that actually occurred in Israel's history) what is it meant to symbolize? Naomi/Mara represents the nation of Israel. Throughout their tumultuous history, the nation of Israel has been forced many times - even in famine specifically - to leave their land and go away for a time. Rarely is that time a pleasant one, and they often return with bitterness, wondering why, if they are indeed God's "chosen people", they seem to have been "chosen" for suffering. From Pharaoh's attempt to eradicate them around the 15th century B.C. to Germany's attempt in the 20th century A.D., they just don't seem to be able to get a break, and Naomi's time in Moab follows this. Pretty much her entire family is dead, all her earthly possessions lost and no children to support her in her old age, we can understand Naomi's bitterness, and the lingering bitterness of many Jews about their own history.
But what small comfort is there for Naomi? Her gentile daughters-in-law, who clearly love her very much, although one with more dedication than the other. These young women represent gentile nations that seem to have some respect and love for Israel. It's an interesting thing to me that from the days of Abraham, God seems to make it pretty clear that one of the main purposes of the nation of Israel is to become a blessing to the nations around them and bring them into a relationship with God, but Israel has tended to isolate themselves from the world, perhaps asking, like Naomi, "why will ye go with me?" Many nations, like a wild deer, wander back their own way, but a few people will insist on friendship with God's chosen people, hoping to find a way to be a blessing to them so that they may take part in the blessings of their God.