The first conspicuous element here is the replacement of Lehi’s test or opening—all that time walking in darkness—with Nephi’s being questioned by the angel. Nephi does not walk in darkness—his vision begins, after the opening angelic interchange, with looking directly on the vision of the tree.
And this too is different. Lehi’s dream was experiential; Nephi’s vision is observational and propositional. This is huge.
Nephi requested to see the things that his father had seen. In response, the angel shows him the tree. It doesn’t start with the field, and the other elements of the vision all come later. There’s no gradual unfolding as Nephi chooses what to scan and perceptually seek after. Nor is it presented as a mystery—Nephi begins with an understanding of what he’s going to see and at least a rough outline of what it means (though his purpose is to see and know more fully). Beginning at the tree, it’s as though the angel is declaring that the whole purpose of Lehi’s vision is to help the viewer understand what the existential point is—what it is that all of our pain and our slogging through mortality is really about. There it is. The tree of life.
Having been shown this fact, the angel once again tests Nephi. Now that you’ve seen the tree, Nephi, what do you desire? But unlike Lehi, Nephi’s goal here is mere understanding. He doesn’t ask to taste the fruit because he can already perceive what the fruit is. He has his father’s testimony. He’s not looking for experience. He’s after understanding. Give me the interpretation. And thus, Nephi doesn’t partake. Instead the angel gives him what he asks for by showing him more, allowing him to fit the pieces together in order to come to an understanding.
I’m also struck by the fact that Nephi’s first response to the tree is aesthetic, which is different than Lehi’s response. Lehi never mentions the beauty of the tree, but that’s the first thing that Nephi sees. I’m moved by this detail in ways that are hard to express.
I’ve always heard and thought myself that Nephi’s parenthetical in vs. 11 means that Nephi saw the Holy Ghost in vision, but this time through that strikes me as completely wrong. We today call the Holy Ghost the Spirit of the Lord, but why should we think that Nephi would? Why should we take it as anything different than what Nephi says—namely, that it’s the Lord’s (Jehovah’s) spirit? This parallels the Brother of Jared later in the Book of Mormon—Nephi sees a vision of the spirit and form that the Lord will one day take.
This strikes me as both appropriate and meaningful, given what Nephi gets shown next. First, however, the Spirit of the Lord disappears. “Look!” and then he’s gone. But he’s of course not gone. He’s still there, in the vision, but now no longer as the man or as the Spirit of the Lord, but instead as the infant babe, born of the Mother of God after the manner of the flesh. Incredibly rich.