The only information we are given for when this takes place is that judges were ruling over Israel. There was a time when Israel had no ruler in place, but we know that this portion of history takes place during the rule of the judges. However, we have no information to link to which judge was ruler at the time. We do know that there was a famine in the land at the time. This was a famine that was occurring in the land of Canaan (the land of milk and honey). According to some commentaries, this is one of the judgments God threatened to bring upon the Israelites for their sins. To be certain of location, we must recognize that it is distinctly pointed out that this is the city of Bethlehem-Judah, no to be confused with another city called Bethlehem in Lebanon.
Elimelech, whose name means "my God is king," took his family to live in Moab during the time of the famine. It is important here to point out what their names mean because it gives us background for the story told throughout this book. Elimelech's wife was Naomi. Naomi means "pleasant one". They had two sons who they took with them to the land of Moab, their names were Mahlon and Kilion. After Elimelech's death, the sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. This was against Mosaic law. Both sons died an early death. Jewish writers attribute their deaths to a divine judgment inflicted on them for violating the law in their marriages. Other commentaries suggest that their early deaths had to do with the meaning of their names (both of which mean "weak or sick"). They were probably born with some type of disease or ailment that brought them to an early death. At the time of their deaths, they had lived in Moab for about 10 years.