Is there a difference between a dream and a vision?
Lehi and Nephi both see revelations of a tree of life, an iron rod, a great and spacious building, and brilliant, white fruit. But while Lehi presumably received his while he was sleeping, saying “I have dreamed a dream,” Nephi receives his while he is awake, pondering in his heart.
Though they apparently saw the same things, Lehi and Nephi describe them differently. Lehi tells his dream as a narrative, explaining how he and his family traveled through the darkness, followed the rod of iron, received persecution from the masses, and eventually found the tree of life. In contrast, Nephi describes his vision as a series of images--the same darkness, iron rod, spacious building, and tree--and he explicates their meanings as given to him by the angel. While Lehi’s dream remains limited to the perspective of the family, Nephi’s vision is more universal: it prophesies the fall of the spacious building, as well as the coming of the Savior.
I read these two revelations very differently. When I read Lehi’s dream, I am swept up in the imagery and the narrative. I imagine my own family pushing forward through the darkness, being tempted by the crowds, clinging to the iron rod. The texture of Lehi’s storytelling makes me more empathetic to the story, more self-reflective of my own spiritual responsibility. On the other hand, when I read Nephi’s vision, I scan the verses looking for doctrine. I accept as principles the explications that the angel gives. I read the vision both as a set of symbols and as a prophetic account for what will occur in the future.
Form, in the case of these two accounts, determines what I get out of them as a reader. This is something that occurs all over the Book of Mormon. Sometimes the authors write very personally, using rich narratives and descriptions; other times, they write like the Ten Commandments, laying down the law impersonally and non-figuratively. It is fascinating to me that Nephi and Lehi seem to separate these two styles into dreams and visions; it makes me wonder if dreams can be taken as dogma, or if visions can ever pass for poetry.
Then again, Lehi’s own statement--”I have dreamed a dream, or, in other words, I have seen a vision”--may suggest that there is almost no difference between dreams and visions at all.