In looking at the big picture, it is easy to overlook small details. Why did the writer of the book of Ruth include the fact that they returned to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest?
What did it matter when they returned? This fact must be significant or it wouldn't have been included in the story.
There is a significance indeed. The beginning of the harvest is a time of new life after a long dead winter, and a season of growth. The seasons happen according to God's great plan: they never change, for God's plan is constant. There is always a period of dormancy, like the dead of winter. Then comes a growing season, followed by the harvest. The harvest brings life and abundance.
Naomi had gone through a long hard winter. She had left Bethlehem with her husband and their two sons during a great famine in their land. They settled in Moab, a pagan nation that was often at odds with Israel. We're not sure how long they lived in Moab before her husband died, but Naomi still had two grown sons to take care of her. Her sons married Moabite women, and she was undoubtedly like all of us: looking forward to grandchildren to enjoy as she grew older. We're told they lived there for about ten years.
But then both of Naomi's sons died. How they died is not a detail the writer included, but Naomi was now a poor widow with no sons to take care of her, and no grandchildren to enjoy. All she had left was two daughters-in-law. She made the decision to return to Bethlehem, which isn't surprising. Whenever we are hurting, don't we want to go home, too, back to the place we were happy and cared for? The place where we knew everyone and we were not a foreigner, but a member of the community.
Naomi was bitter that God had taken so much from her. In fact, when she returned, she told people not to call her Naomi anymore, call her Mara instead, because God had dealt so bitterly with her. (Naomi means “pleasant”, Mara means “bitter”.) She had definitely gone through a long, dead winter. That's why the fact that she returned at the beginning of the barley harvest was so significant: God was telling Naomi – and us - that when we go through these hard times that can make us bitter, there is a better time coming!
Dark, dormant winter seasons will always be followed by the harvest, because God's seasons always follow His pattern. There are better times ahead; we just need to wait upon the Lord, and trust in His providence and mercy. We can let our circumstances make us bitter or better, the choice is ours.
Take a moment to thank God for His constancy: day always follows night, and a harvest always follows a dead, cold winter. We can count on Him, for His plan never changes, and His promise is sure!