Joseph Smith remarked on visions that they are something that overcomes the visionary—that is, they’re physically exhausting. After the famous vision he shared with Sidney Rigdon (D&C 76), Sidney was apparently quite overcome, and Joseph quipped, “He’s not as used to this as I am” (or something to that effect, a la Truman Madsen). Thus it appears to have been the case with Lehi—overcome after his experience in the presence of God (a pillar of fire being a typological Old Testament symbol for the presence of God), he casts himself upon his bed. But God wasn’t yet done with him.
Hardy points out that this appears to be something of a cover-up, that Nephi appears to be intentionally blurring the lines between visions (note that Nephi’s narrative begins with what is clearly denoted as a conscious, daytime vision) and dreams, which Nephi often parenthesizes as a “vision.” Hardy sees Nephi as responding to the criticism lodged by Jeremiah that dreams are the least trustworthy of spiritual experiences. This seems quite plausible, and it does read to me as though Nephi is responding here, taking cues from other discussions, likely criticism of Lehi (perhaps a later Laman-ish/sons-of-Ishmael-ish criticism; or perhaps more likely the criticism of the inhabitants of Jerusalem that might have later been repeated by critics in the family).
In addition, however, Nephi is positively painting a picture of his father as being in constant communion with the heavens. He’s overcome by it. Even when he lies down to rest from it, perhaps to try to digest and understand it, he’s seized by dreams or visions once again. As Joseph once put it, “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink to know how I shall make the saints of God to comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind. (16 April 1843: WR).”
I think it’s easy to read this passage together with the whole exodus as something that happens immediately: Day 1: Vision followed by dream; Day 2: Preach in the market, and almost get killed; Day 3: pack up and leave with family early in the morning; Day 6: send boys back to get the brass plates… At least, that’s the Hollywood sort of way I’ve often pictured it. But that’s clearly not the case. The psalm-like passage Nephi quotes makes this clear. Lehi had time to experience not just the vision and dream recorded here, but many things—he had a “visionary” way of being, as his wife Sariah later accuses him. And he processed these in writing, and praising, and a great deal of speaking and teaching his children. It strikes me as years of ongoing experience prior to the exodus.
But what of this second dream-vision that Nephi details for us? Even granting Lehi’s visionary period as being years—still, there is this foundational, return-home-and-cast-yourself-upon-the-bed dream. I wonder how it struck Lehi at the time. We’re all corrupted now in our interpretations. We can’t help but see it as a New Testament vision. This is clearly Christ and the Twelve Apostles. I can’t imagine it was anything like that for Lehi, however, even granting it as a link to his Messianic prophesying. Is it less anachronistic to think of Lehi seeing Metatron and the Twelve Tribes, a vision of Heavenly descension? I wonder if there’s connection between Lehi’s later willingness to perform the temple rites outside of Jerusalem and this vision. Was Lehi another of those alienated from the temple, being a northerner, a refugee and not a Jew in Jerusalem? Is this a vindication of his belief in the wholeness and equality of Israel, and something that granted him the right to the rites of his ancestors? And I wonder just what the abominations were that made Jerusalem ripe for destruction. Were they particular to that historical context, or general—something we are capable of repeating today?
One final thought: perhaps this is also part of the genesis of the later rift between Nephi and Laman. Noting that the text describes Lehi as a visionary who teaches these things to his children, then perhaps Laman saw himself not only as the rightful heir to leading the family, but also the rightful heir to Lehi’s visionary experiences. According to this narrative, it’s only Nephi who lays hold to this claim, while Laman (again, according to Nephi) laments that no such visions are given to him. Did Laman feel undercut by his younger and quick-to-declare-visions brother?